Album of the Week, June 26: Last by the Unthanks

UnthanksLastThe Unthank sisters were born in Ryton, on the Northumberland border in northeast England. Their father is an interior designer who sings folk tunes as a member of a local group called the Keelers, and their mother belongs to a local folk choir. Music — especially Northumbrian folk — was a big part of Unthank family life. Rachel, nearly eight years older than Becky, began singing semi-professionally as she finished college. She formed the Winterset with pianist Belinda O’Hooley, and Becky joined part time while beginning her university years. The group released two acclaimed albums with two different fiddlers, then Becky decided to make music her career as well. Renamed the Unthanks, the sisters were joined by long-time producer, manager, label owner, (and Rachel’s new husband) Adrian McNally on a variety of instruments plus Winterset fiddler Niopha Keegan and guitarist Chris Price. The new band’s first outing Here’s the Tender Coming, won wide praise and established their mature approach to fusing traditional and modern music. Following that success, they repaired to Rachel and Adrian’s home to record their finest moment (so far).

Album Last
Act The Unthanks
Label Rabble Rouser Release Date March 14, 2011
Producer Adrian McNally
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Gan to the Kye
  2. The Gallowgate Lad
  3. Queen of Hearts
  4. Last
  5. Give Away Your Heart
  6. No One Knows I’m Gone
  7. My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up
  8. Canny Hobbie Elliot
  9. Starless
  10. Close the Coalhouse Door
  11. Last (reprise)

The Unthanks’ sound is a rich, quiet blend of musical styles. They adapt traditional songs, modern folk, rock and pop standards, and unusual covers from the likes of Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty. With powerful family harmonies based on two distinctive voices and carefully crafted arrangements, they make things sound very much their own while remaining true to the spirit of the source material. The Winterset provided livelier settings; the Unthanks are more sedate but richer and more emotionally resonant. Last, a meditation on the power of loss and sorrow, is a perfect reflection of these talents.

Gan to the Kye is a flawless start. A border song about raising cattle, it becomes an almost mystical exploration of rural life and hard work in the Unthanks’ musical hands. Victorian era Geordie songwriter Joe Wilson put the lyrics of The Gallowgate Lad to a traditional tune, crafting a moving song of a lass whose lad has gone away with the militia. Wilson’s words are smart and aching, and the Unthanks weave a compelling musical spell of loss around them. Wrapping up the traditional trio that launches the disc is a powerful version of the old broadside Queen of Hearts. A tale of romantic struggle, it captures the tension of wanting something — or someone — that’s not the best choice, wanting it so much that giving up everything seems reasonable. These three tracks form a suite of traditional music set to modern arrangements, a wonderful establishment of the Unthanks’ vision and skill.

Adrian McNally’s Last is a long, slow build, recorded in a concert hall whose piano acoustics haunted him. A meditation on fears of an uncertain future and the dangerous appeal of a flawed past, it’s a wonderful centerpiece and a nice reminder of the band’s skill at building their own music. Next up is a song from Jon Redfern, a condemnation of Britain’s decision to join the Gulf War. Give Away Your Heart is so subtle and moving that it works as a protest of many kinds of flawed decision-making, from the international to the deeply personal. (In fact, Becky Unthank originally thought it was a broken love song, and the layered impact resonated with her.) Closing this set of modern compositions is a wonderful reading of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s No One Knows I’m Gone. For Waits, it’s a fairly direct song, and the Unthanks’ arrangement gives it amazing weight. As with the first three tracks, this mini-suite works as its own unit and as a part of the whole that is Last.

My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up is a Northumbrian slip jig, intended to be a fast dance number. The Unthanks slow it down, letting the words — in dense Northumbrian dialect — resonate more clearly. The effect is delightfully jarring. Things get truly moving with the jaunty adultery dance number Canny Hobbie Elliot, the fastest paced track on the album. It features fun singing and playing, a bit of spry joy in the somber proceedings.

The next two tracks are two very different modern songs. Starless was originally written by King Crimson bassist John Wetton for the band’s sixth album, but rejected by the band in favor of an instrumental improv version (Starless and Bible Black, the title track). Something closer to Wetton’s original intent appeared on the next disc, Red, and the Unthanks make that version their own. A powerful, dark song, somehow the dense prog rock becomes a perfect lush folk-pop anthem. Close the Coalhouse Door was written by Alex Glasgow for a play of the same name, a lament for the fate of coal miners. It’s a dark reflection of the destructive industry, recognizing its critical importance to a significant percentage of British laborers. Modern and old at once, it serves as a smart close to the album.

A brief instrumental reprise of the title track is a well-chosen coda. Bright and engaging, it reminds the listener that sorrow and loss are as important to the human spirit as joy. It shows of McNally’s skill at sequencing and arranging, and the smart talent of the band as a whole at making a cohesive musical statement. Last is strong themes in careful, often subtle arrangements. It takes a listen or two to sink in, then it has you caught for good. That’s great music.

FURTHER LISTENING: All of the Unthanks’ albums are wonderful in their own way. Here’s a quick tour of their work so far.

  • Cruel Sister is the most fun album, a perfect starting point that features well-chosen traditional and modern songs. It’s the most initially engaging of the band’s work and holds up well after a decade of great Unthanks music.
  • The Bairns hints at what the Winterset will become when they rearrange into the Unthaks. Darker but still focused on individual songs, it’s solid but not as cohesive as their best work. It features Belinda O’Hooley’s magical Blackbird, one of the best tracks in their catalog.
  • Here’s the Tender Coming is a great launch to the new version of the band. It’s a solid transition, showcasing the group’s growing confidence and complexity.
  • The Diversions are three aptly named live albums recorded after Last. Vol. 1 is all covers of songs by Antony Hegarty or Robert Wyatt. It works surprisingly well. Vol. 2 is a more traditional live album, featuring songs from the band’s catalog and some other pieces that fit well, with some nice brass band elements. Vol. 3 is a the studio version of a thematic live show featuring songs about shipyards.
  • Mount the Air builds on Last, focusing on whole-album cohesion almost to a fault. It’s gorgeous and well-constructed, but a bit harder to embrace.

If you like what the Unthanks do, consider all the studio albums and give the Diversions a try. After Last, Cruel Sister is my favorite, with Here’s the Tender Coming a close second.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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