Interview with Rachel Unthanks

Alex talks to Rachel Unthank from the Mercury Prize nominated folk band The Unthanks about their winter tour, coming to the Cambridge Corn Exchange this month.

LISTEN to the interview with Rachel Unthank at: Alex Elbro: The Unthanks in Winter

Unthank Smith: Nowhere and Everywhere review | Jude Rogers’s folk album of the month

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.

Source: Unthank Smith: Nowhere and Everywhere review | Jude Rogers’s folk album of the month

The Unthanks’ “Diversions Vol. 1” turns ten, and still sounds beautiful

Sing Out! Review | THE UNTHANKS: Diversions Vol. 1 (Rough Trade 5112): by Bill Snyder

By Bill Snyder | Sept 2012

The Unthanks have always played loose with the folk traditions of their native Northumberland, England. Though their intricate chamber-like arrangements transform folk repertoire into something uniquely Unthank, they seem to reveal each song’s essence in the process.

On Diversions Vol. 1, they tackle the work of Antony Hegarty (Antony & The Johnsons) and Soft Machine cofounder Robert Wyatt in much the same way, dramatically reinterpreting each song and drilling down to its heart. There are no attempts to make these “folk songs,” and even the intricate vocal interplay between sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank loses much of its Celtic lilt.

Hegarty’s songs are sparse and filled with longing. The band treats them delicately, focusing on piano, and vocal-centric arrangements fleshed out by strings. It’s all about intimacy. Notably, “Man is the Baby” captures the struggle of the spirit’s need to soar with such intimacy it could have been performed in a living room. The show stopping “Today I Am a Boy” seems like its response as the sisters’ harmony do soar, with beauty and strength that invoke shudders if not tears.

Wyatt’s songs require a bigger sound, and the band steps up. “Dondestan” takes a trumpet melody and punctuates it with Rachel and Becky’s clogs creating the Northumberland equivalent of a hoedown — so energetic you’re hooked before realizing it’s a plea for displaced Palestinians.

“Sea Song” (the album’s highpoint) is cryptic, poetic and elegiac. Stripped largely to piano, accordion and Becky’s vocals, it taps a romantic sorrow, but ends with the entrance of violin and building harmonies: a hint of redemption.

This is truly a diversion from The Unthanks’ canon. Those looking for a folk album should probably pass. For those who have been transfixed by the band’s interpretations, arrangements, and vocal harmonies, though, it’s definitely a welcome diversion.

Source: THE UNTHANKS: Diversions Vol. 1 – Sing Out!

Listen to the Folk On Foot Show: The Unthanks and more

This month’s Official Folk Albums Chart Show features an interview with Becky Unthank about the Unthanks’ new album Sorrows Away; an interview with Angeline Morrison about her album telling stories of the Black British experience; an exclusive film of the Sea Song Sessions – Jon Boden, Seth Lakeman, Ben Nicholls, Emily Portman and Jack Rutter performing on a tall ship in Fowey Harbour; plus music from Magpies, Blackbeard’s Tea Party, Man The Lifeboats, Dan Whitehouse and Sam Sweeney. There’s also news of how to be in an audience of only ten people for an exclusive Front Room Gig from Martin Simpson.

Review: The Unthanks’ “Sorrows Away” 

After assorted diversions, the sibling duo and co release a straight-up album of traditional songs and self-written work

The Tyneside group have secured an enviable position among British folk acts: beloved of the faithful but recognisable to casual listeners. Much is in part down to the distinctive sibling harmonies of sisters Rachel and Becky and to the Northumbrian tradition they champion, be it tales of Royal Navy press gangs or tributes to the region’s industrial past; here, for example, Rachel has an original song called The Isabella Colliery Coke Ovens. The group have played their hand cannily in other ways, bringing ambitious arrangements to their work – an outing with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra included – and exploring so-called “Diversions” – albums of songs of the shipyard, Robert Wyatt, Molly Drake; another with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band – plus soundtracks for revamped children’s TV favourite Worzel Gummidge.

The Unthanks don’t falter on what is their first “proper” album in seven years, though the nine minutes of the Sandgate Dandling Song, a Victorian ballad about domestic violence, inclines to the ponderous. They are better when airborne, as on The Old News or Royal Blackbird, a Jacobite song given a lively violin arrangement. The much sung Waters of Tyne is an obvious standout, as is the title track, which has become an anthem on the group’s ongoing tour.

Source: The Unthanks: Sorrows Away review – from ponderous to airborne