Rachel Unthank’s voice wraps softly around Paul Smith’s unfussy baritone on an otherworldly album that explores the songs of their mutual homeland
By Jude Rogers
Rachel Unthank is a folk-singing veteran whose family band, the Unthanks, have always been collaborative, political and quietly experimental, recording LPs of the songs of Anohni, Robert Wyatt and Molly Drake, as well as works of moving social history with Maxine Peake and Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. Paul Smith, the festival crowd-cajoling frontman of Newcastle indie-rockers Maxïmo Park, is outwardly very different, but has long been a folk fan; after the pair met at an Africa Express gig, they set out to explore the songs of their mutual homeland, the north-east of England.
With Field Music’s David Brewis producing to crown a north-eastern triumvirate, Nowhere and Everywhere is a beautiful, exploratory collection bringing old stories to life in settings pastoral and otherworldly. The arrangements are the star of the show, hinting towards the mid-century soundtracks of Basil Kirchin, the spacious ambience of later Talk Talk and the post-rock textures of Tortoise and Gastr del Sol. Clarinettist Faye MacCalman and drummer Alex Neilson provide the soft waves on which Unthank and Smith’s vocals drift, crest and roll.
Smith’s voice slots very naturally into traditional settings, his direct baritone the unfussy, handsome instrument of an intimate storyteller. It is especially gorgeous on the Child ballad, Lord Bateman, Unthank’s voice wrapping around it like soft cotton; real joy also shines through their duet on Lal Waterson’s glorious ode to drunkenness, Red Wine Promises.
Unthank also plays an unsettling, droning harmonium on Graeme Miles’ stunning Horumarye (a song about the sound the wind makes whistling over the moors) and contributes her first-ever original to a record, Seven Tears, about a selkie, a mythological seal that sheds its skin to transform into a human lover. This track builds gently, then feverishly, shivering with love. This whole album carries the same liberating feeling throughout.