What does it sound like?:
I do love The Unthanks. I saw them on many occasions with the ten piece band, various times with smaller outfits, once with a full orchestra for backing and then, last spring at Union Chapel in Islington, I saw Rachel Unthank, Becky Unthank and Niopha Keegan still the very air around us and hold the lucky several hundred present with nothing but their unaccompanied voices and not even a clog dance to add percussion.
That Union Chapel show is one of several from the Unaccompanied As We Are tour which has contributed performances on this latest addition to the Unthanks’ Diversions albums series. Previous Diversions releases have gathered songs by theme or songwriter, but this collection is grouped by style, songs in the style in which Rachel Becky started performing in Northumberland folk clubs. It is utterly lovely.
In the years before this tour there was a danger that The Unthanks could turn into the Adrian McNally band. Adrian, musical arranger and former Mr Rachel Unthank, creates brilliant music culminating in Mount the Air, for me one of the very best albums so far this century, but his influence began to overshadow the pure voices which are the Unthanks first and greatest attraction. By going back to their roots Rachel and Becky, along with Niopha, have reclaimed their position as one of Britain’s greatest traditional as well as innovative groups.
Fans of melancholy are in for a treat here of course and it is the bleakest music which provides the greatest beauty, whether it be Niopha’s chilling lead vocal on I’m Weary of Lying Alone, or Rachel and Becky harmonising on Richard Dawson’s We Picked Apples in a Graveyard Freshly Mown. Only three of these songs have appeared on an Unthanks record before, but those hankering for a bit of old will be reassured to find magpie, brought to a wider audience by The Detectorists, present. This is music which makes you pause whatever you are doing and lean in to catch every note and every breath.
There are some lighter moments among the misery in Geordie Wedding Set and Where’ve Ye Been Dick?, but those aren’t the disc’s greatest attractions. If you want some sunshine to balance the gloom you need to get the ‘special film edition’ which comes with a DVD by Ainslie Henderson (Mr Becky Unthank). It includes a short film in the form of a tour diary and 4 performances from the show, including some from that Union Chapel gig.
The diary comes without commentary and is full of normally hidden moments, giving the impression of being inside the tour bus or part of the extended Unthank family as they travel (both Becky and Niopha had their babies on the road with them). The sung sections of the diary are similarly intimate, very close cropped so you almost feel like you are surrounded by the singers.
What does it all *mean*?
Right now everyone needs as much beauty in their lives as they can find, and musicians need as much support as they can get when their income has dried up. Do everyone a favour and order a copy of The Unthanks Live and Unaccompanied here http://www.the-unthanks.com/products/Albums/c501210339/
Goes well with…
Quiet moments when you want to step out of your worries a be immersed in pure music
Might suit people who like…
Folkies will already know about The Unthanks but this albums quiet beauty might be what persuades those who want to dip a toe in.