Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Unlike almost any other group on the planet, The Unthanks (formerly Rachel Unthank and the Winterset) look deep into their genetic past for inspiration, tracking down and reinterpreting long-forgotten paeans for a modern audience. At least, that’s what made them semi-famous and earned them a Mercury Music Prize nomination for 2007’s The Bairns.
Following the (apparently acrimonious) departure of pianist and writer of their finest originals (that sat beautifully alongside ancient laments for lost sailors and drunken lovers) what their next step would be was one they wouldn’t answer when last they were in town playing one of their blindingly brilliant shows to 20 bearded folkies. It turns out their solution is to step up their songwriting, interpreting more modern songwriters such as Ewan McCall, Anne Briggs and Graeme Miles all as un-cool as their names suggest. Earlier interpretations of Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song and Nick Drakes River Man have skilfully managed to offend no one yet, and Here’s the Tender Coming is unlikely to do anything but win more fans to their unforced harmonies and genuine love for their craft.
Songs such as Living By The Water, The Testimony of Patience Kershaw and Annachie Gordon are gorgeous high points on an album that sees the (now five-piece) band achieve their intentions affectingly. The thumb-in-britches cheesiness of hidden track Betsy Bell and hackneyed lyrics of Lucky Gilchrist and may bother some but it is more than balanced out by the gentle shifts of the arrangements featuring tuned percussion, autoharp, cello quartets, Brassed Off-style horns and, for the first time, bass and drums.
The Tender was the name of a boat that bore the men of Northeast England away to war, and though there are no tear-stained hankies clutched to faces there are many masterfully-told tales of characters. The pains and idylls of their homeland are seductively sold through the voices, the minimalist piano-led arrangements and the connection between the singers and the songs, which is where the magic really is. This is an album to grow into, especially if you have English roots; there is something weirdly comforting about hearing songs your ancestors could have sung.