Northumbria’s The Unthanks are partial to a themed project and have a wide-ranging fanbase to show for their adventurous creativity.
Their latest box set, Lines, brings together three separate projects, all inspired by poetry, and is one of their most suitable and beautiful ventures to date, playing to their strengths in storytelling, atmosphere and bittersweet sentiment.Part One: Lillian Bilocca is their recording of the music from The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca, actress Maxine Peake’s site specific theatre piece about the eponymous activist’s campaign for improved safety at sea following Hull’s triple trawler disaster of 1968.
A Whistling Woman features Becky Unthank in more urgent, rhythmic mode than usual, singing Peake’s lyrics over surging piano. In contrast, sister Rachel sings as Bilocca on the softer, more contemplative contours of The Sea is a Woman while the glistening tones of Adrian McNally’s Fender Rhodes adorn a haunting and unexpected cover of Lucky Luke theme I’m a Poor Lonesome Cowboy.
Part 2: World War One adapts the words of First World War poets, including a couple of lesser sung female voices. Teresa Hooley’s War Film, inspired by First World War footage, is particularly potent in its stark simplicity, while Rachel and Becky harmonise wistfully on Jessie Pope’s intimate Socks.These are complemented by two entirely new compositions – the gentle uplift of Everyone Sang by Tim Dalling and the mellow lyricism of Sam Lee’s Roland and Vera, adapted from letters sent between the writer Vera Brittain and her fiancé, the poet and soldier Roland Leighton, who was killed in the conflict.Part 3: Emily Brontë sets ten poems by the Wuthering Heights author to music composed by McNally on Bronte’s own piano in the Haworth Parsonage museum after visitors left for the day. The restored piano has to be played gently, all the better to convey the tender delicacy of her verse.There is a graceful, courtly movement to the piano melody of She Dried Her Tears and They Did Smile, ancient folk vibrations to the subtle harmonies of The Night Is Darkening Round Me, a sonorous sweetness to Lines and a spring-like levity to I’m Happiest When Most Away.
These sensitive renderings are currently available to hear as a sound installation in the Parsonage or, for those who can’t make it to Yorkshire, as part of this lovingly packaged triple set of self-styled “medium players”.