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.
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.
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.
With Sorrows Away, The Unthanks have graced us with their most extraordinary record to date, a momentous album from one of the greatest folk bands today.
Sorrows Away, the latest album from The Unthanks, not only marks a welcome return but also brings one of their most extraordinary albums to date.
For many, The Unthanks’ ‘Mount the Air’ (BBC Folk Album Of The Year 2015) marked a significant transformation in their music, balancing the orchestral with the intimate for which they have become masters. The dynamics at the core of what is one of the most distinctive-sounding bands around appear to have not really changed. Still at the heart are two sisters, Rachael and Becky, with their uncanny blend of familial harmony singing.
Whether it is due to the interlocking of accents, years of attunement and paired practice or rather down to genetic similarities in tone; together they are heard as one strain, tight-knit like the double helix braiding of DNA.
David Weir, Folk Radio
If the sisters are the heart, Adrian McNally, as once mentioned on these pages, is like the vessels, the veins and arteries down which the music flows to the limits of its creation. At the same time, Niopha Keegan, Chris Price, Lizzie Jones and the others who make up the band put the flesh on the bones. What’s most remarkable, though, is that they somehow manage to reinvent themselves on each album. Adrian McNally once told us:
…we constantly demand that we reinvent ourselves as a band in order to become ‘different bands’ – one which is the right sort of line-up or ensemble to perform and re-imagine the next project which is invariably unrelated to the last incarnation.
This is, in part, what makes a new album from The Unthanks so highly anticipated and welcome. Since Mount the Air, they have delivered some remarkable gems. In 2017, as part of their Diversions series, they introduced us to the simple, personal, and universal wisdom of the songs and poems of Molly Drake, while their 2019 Lines project, a trilogy of albums, offered three discrete song cycles inspired by poetry, the principal link between them being their focusing on female perspectives across time.
Sorrows Away not only marks a welcome return, it’s also one of their most extraordinary albums to date. Of the ten tracks on the album, eight are traditional folk songs to which they bring their unique interpretations; these are, in turn, beautifully complimented by a new song written by each of the sisters.
The album boldly opens with two tracks of nearly eight and nine minutes. The Great Silkie of Skull Skerry, followed by The Sandgate Dandling Song, a moving song over which the threat of domestic abuse lingers. In a stunning duet with Rachel, Adrian McNally (producer and band leader) sings a new self-written verse as the voice of Johnny, promising his children that he’ll soon be home to mammy and that “I’ll not be drunk, I’ll not be bad, I’m not like him, me canny dad, you’ll see I’ve changed this time for good…”. The recording is full of cinematic string swells that heighten the emotion while the royal brass melodies tie the song to its industrial northeast roots.
McNally, the mastermind behind the production, has fully realised the sound he has been cultivating for the band over the last several years. We heard glimpses of it in The Lines (2019), an ambitious crafting of genres reminiscent of Sigur Rós and The Cinematic Orchestra, with influences of jazz, post-rock, electronic, orchestral and minimalism. It’s perfectly exemplified in Old News (written by Becky Unthank) which begins with a soaring cacophony of drums, brass, woodwind and strings, and over the top, a soft, silky chorus singing a hopeful and triumphant melody. It’s a thrill to the ear, equal parts inspiring and joyful.
This is complemented by a song by Rachel Unthank, Isabella Colliery Coke Ovens, written in a style so timeless it’s hard to differentiate it from some of their traditional renditions. A touching song that offers light and optimism as of a spring walk among the ruins of the old Northumbrian colliery.
This must be the most imaginative and contemporary version of The Bay of Fundy ever to have been recorded. Written by American folklorist Gordon Bok in 1975, it is a song filled with drama, making reference to the bay, which has the highest tides in the world, prone to freak weather conditions and deep fog. After the chorus, the musicians glide into an ambient breakdown, the brass melody supported by a minimalistic synth, shimmering strings and a catchy drum fill.
There are also moments to remind early fans why they first fell in love with The Unthanks. Singing Bird opens with an organ and the stark, lone voice of Niopha Keegan painting a bucolic landscape with this old love song, “But there’s none of them can sing so sweet / my singing bird / as you”. A trumpet solo by Lizzie Jones allows for a moment of reflection between verses. This rendition is performed with such tender beauty it sends a shiver down the spine, and if any of the songs here bring a tear to the eye, this one will.
Waters of Tyne continues in this very stripped-back way. The chords of this traditional folk song (originating from The Unthanks’ north-east roots and first collected as early as 1810 by John Bell) are played on a guitar that calls to mind the delicate playing Paul Brady. Subtle found sounds of nature contextualise the watery setting, providing a stage for the solo voice to sing its message of longing “I cannot get to my love if I would die / for the water of Tyne runs between him and me”.
The tunes of this album feel as though they have been very carefully and intentionally selected as a balm for all of us emerging from the pandemic. Ancient messages of separation, longing and grief have a whole new meaning in the context of our collective experience of lockdown.
The most vital sense of healing comes at the record’s close, with the title track Sorrows Away (Love is Kind); the song combines two traditional songs, one, commonly known as Thousands or More, with a lesser-known Irish song, Love is Kind which has been performed by the likes of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – it also featured on Lankum’s debut album Cold Old Fire. The pronunciation ‘ee-hah-wah’ (meaning “goodnight”) after passing through many hands, has turned into ‘heave-ah-wah’ and is chanted in a moment of stillness, before the ultimate album-end. Soaring strings, crashing drums, woodwind and brass; the whole ensemble gives it their all while a chorus sings “Sorrows Away! Sorrows Away!” half wish, half instruction.
The Unthanks have graced us with their most extraordinary record to date. It is a tonic to lift the spirits and marks a momentous moment in the career of one of the greatest folk bands in the UK today.
Lee Fisher loses his heart to The Unthanks (again) as the North East band offer up a triumphant hometown show
By Lee Fisher
Hometown gigs from The Unthanks always have a special vibe, but this show was a long time coming (for the band and for us) and the room positively hummed with expectation before the 11-piece incarnation appeared on stage. Kicking off with three tracks from an as-yet unreleased album is a bold move, but one that definitely paid off. The last of the three, Sandgate Dandling Song, has already appeared as a Rachel Unthank solo vocal track on the Stick In The Wheel-recorded From Here Volume 2 album, but the full band version was a lush and powerful affair. Coming at the end of a two-week tour, any nerves the band had after a long period of inactivity were fully banished and – complemented by some really impressive production flourishes – they’ve rarely sounded or looked better.
I make no secret of the fact that a well-chosen harmony or a piercing trumpet line can ruin my make-up, but I normally make it as far as Mount The Air before losing my shit at an Unthanks show; tonight – perhaps because it had been so long since I’d seen them – King Of Rome broke me, its plaintive melody and unquenchable optimism getting me right in the feels halfway through the first set. Ironically, King Of Rome is also one of a couple of songs tonight that I thought had a slightly fussy arrangement, but that didn’t matter too much as I sobbed into my beer.
The set was perfectly constructed – a handful of new songs, some deep cuts (including a stunning A Whistling Woman from the Maxine Peake-penned play about Lillian Bilocca) and the hits – Magpie, Lucky Gilchrist and the like. The sisters were on especially charming and chatty form and the whole thing was magical. They finished the second set with Mount The Air (yes, dear reader, they got me again) and I remain in awe of this song: in some ways it’s Adrian McNally’s prog leanings in full effect – it’s long, it has movements and glorious (although not overblown) orchestration and it climaxes with a clog dancing solo. But it absolutely fucking soars, the sisters totally inhabit it but it’s also all about Lizzie Jones on trumpet, for some years now the band’s magnificent secret weapon, who played her heart out tonight. They encored with a beautiful Farewell Regality (the finest non-Christmas Christmas record there is) and a reprise of the audience singalong to new album title track Sorrows Away that had me grumbling along despite myself. The Unthanks have been slaying me for nearly two decades now, in a number of incarnations, and it’s a delight to confirm that the old cliché about absence holds very true. They absolutely have my heart.