The Unthanks Last (4.5*)

Friday, 14 December 2012


It's called Last, and there's definitely something autumnal about this fourth album by the Unthanks. As Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, the label they were employing up to 2009's Here's the Tender Coming, Northumbrian sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank had attracted plenty of attention, with their 2005 debut album picking p MOJO magazine's Folk Album of the Year award. The honours continued through the years, with The Bairns nominated for the Best Album award at the 2008 BBC Folk Awards and the 2008 Mercury Prize and the band nominated for three further BBC Folk Awards.That's quite a wrap on an emerging outfit that melded Northumbrian tradition with some rather interesting contemporary elements.

Born seven and a half years apart, Rachel and Becky Unthank are the daughters of a Northumbrian folk singer so you’d expect there’s a fairly deep knowledge of the traditional material, but on Last some of the strongest material comes from decidedly non-traditional sources, namely Tom Waits and King Crimson.

I’ve been dabbling in the realm of timelessness quite a lot recently, with the John Fahey Your Past Catches Up With You box set, and traditional English folk material from Shirley and Dolly Collins, but here we’re not just looking at timeless, we’re also talking seasonal. 

It doesn’t take much stretching of the imagination to visualise these songs sung in a snowed in home somewhere on the Northumbrian moors. Isolated moorland houses typically lack drum kits, brass sections and string quartets, so it’s not necessarily an accurate representation of that scenario, but at the same time the minimalist arrangements and the fragile breathy vocals deliver that ambience in spades.

That ambience kicks in from the first notes of Gan to the Kye, a traditional piece that sets the mood for everything that follows. Without the luxury of liner notes (and here’s a prime example of where they’re needed) you might not pick up the song’s actual story. The best I’ve been able to glean from the intertubes is that the origins of the song dates back to the times of the Border Reivers, a quietly eerie evocation of a time when violence and cattle rustling were rife across the lawless regions on the border between England and 

Scotland. I might have this wrong, but it’s a lullaby for an infant whose father has been killed in border skirmishes, and most of his herd have been driven off. Maybe the remnant will be enough for mother and child to survive, maybe not.

Tragedy and romance in times of turmoil continue throughThe Gallowgate Lad and Queen of Hearts but the times of turmoil come into focus on the title track, Last, a lyrical meditation on the present based on the premise that we’re coming to an end, and in the last days there’s no reason to look to the future. All you can do is reflect on the present and treasure the past.

It’s a theme that continues through the disappointment is everywhere refrain in Give Away Your Heart, Jon Redfern’s reflection on the Iraq war and Tom Waits’ No One Knows I'm Gone. It’s back to traditional territory for My Laddie Sits Ower Late up and Canny Hobbie Elliot before one of the more unlikely covers of recent times. King Crimson’s Starless is reinterpreted, starting with a rather lovely solo trumpet and a gorgeous vocal. 

The highlight, however, comes with Alex Glasgow’s Close the Coalhouse Door, originally written for a stage presentation about the human cost of extracting underground coal. Given Northumbria’s past as a mining centre, it’s a stark reminder of days gone by when times were grim. It fits right into the thematic sensibilities that run through the album, and while proceedings could have finished there, a lighter reprise of the title track closes things out with a wave of gentle melancholia.

It’s an album that needs the right setting to work its magic, though. Not the sort of thing to be playing around noon on a summer’s day, but the haunting minimalist arrangements, haunting vocals, focussed production and folkloric colloquialisms combine to form a whole that’s moving, unforgettable, and in the right setting, a captivating listen. 

© Ian Hughes 2012