THE UNTHANKS – Lines (RRM021S / RRM021SLP)

LinesLines is a trilogy of song cycles inspired by poetry, focusing on three female perspectives across time: Hull fishing worker Lillian Bilocca; World War One poets; and writer Emily Brontë. Lines is available on general release from February 22nd .

After discovering Brian Lavery’s book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries, the actor and writer Maxine Peake created the play The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca as part of Hull’s hugely successful City of Culture events. Bilocca was the woman who changed policy and regulations following the loss of three trawlers in close succession in early 1968. She led women from the Hessle Road area of Hull (where many of the trawlermen came from) in protest against the lack of safety in the trawling industry. The protests led to a meeting with the government in London and then to eighty-eight safety measures being enacted.

The play had an original live score by The Unthanks and this album has five tracks. The music is predominantly written by Adrian McNally. A couple of the songs have lyrics by Peake – but the album also includes Bolling and Fishman’s ‘Lonesome Cowboy’ (which is a surprise until you relate the lyrics to the long journeys of the trawlermen). I didn’t get back to Hull to see the play, but based on this album, I regret it even more than I did at the time – the music is magnificently atmospheric, with rich but hushed tone set by McNally’s piano and supported by equally soft vocal and playing from the rest of the band.

It isn’t possible to understand Hull, particularly West Hull, without understanding its trawling history. Peake’s play with its focus on the events of 1968 has helped unite this fishing tradition into the modern city of culture. To give an idea of the significance of the women’s protests, Brian Lavery quotes one of Bilocca’s colleagues on her return to Hull from London as saying that the women of Hessle Road “did more in six days than Trade Unions and politicians had done in a century”. The definitions of folk music are many and varied but one of them is “the people’s music”. The Unthanks album will help preserve the story of Lillian Bilocca and the Headscarf Revolutionaries. It will also widen the audience that knows the story.

Mike Wistow

The second part of Lines comprises six songs concerning the Great War and, of course, there is a back story. The songs were originally written for a project marking the beginning of the war and have now been recorded to mark its end. Such projects tend to be collaborative affairs and so the first voice we hear isn’t an Unthank but Sam Lee who sings the first part the long opener ‘Roland And Vera’. Roland was Roland Leighton who was shot and killed two days before Christmas 1915 and Vera was his fiancée Vera Brittain. The song is based on her memoir and there’s lots about her to look up.

‘Everyone Sang’ is the first set of words by a contemporary poet, in this case Siegfried Sassoon with music by Tim Dalling who also sings on this recording. Sassoon was also responsible for the harrowing ‘Suicide In The Trenches’. Adrian McNally takes over as composer from this point beginning with ‘War Film’ by Teresa Hooley, although the poem was probably written in the 1920s. We don’t often think of women as war poets but Jessie Pope, who wrote the final piece ‘Socks’ is one such. Wilfred Owen dedicated Dulce Et Decorum Est to her which shows the regard in which she was held at the time.

The short poem ‘Breakfast’ was written by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, the leading Georgian poet. It’s typical of the way wrote about the minutiae of life and The Unthanks expand it including lines from ‘Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire’ which are perfectly in keeping. The music is, perhaps inevitably, dominated by McNally’s piano with extra strings brought in to bolster Niopha Keegan’s fiddle and Chris Price’s bass and guitar

Dai Jeffries

As the concluding part of The Unthanks’ Lines trilogy, part three is based on the poetic works of Emily Brontë. Commissioned by the Brontë Society to commemorate the bicentenary of Wuthering Heights, this set of scored poems also forms an audio trail around the Haworth Parsonage (until 31 March 2019; free, but equipment booking required).

Unlike the epic adventurousness of some of their more recent work, this album has a direct simplicity, featuring only Rachel and Becky Unthank’s voices accompanied by Adrian McNally’s piano. McNally composed and performed on the parsonage’s 5-octave cabinet piano, which no doubt informed the hypnotic minimalism of the resulting music. Ambient sounds derive from on-site recording sessions, which took place after museum hours.

As we enter ‘The Parsonage’ the crows take raucous flight from the churchyard next door. Opening the door, only footsteps and the chiming and ticking of clocks disturb the stifling stillness. Nature, time, death. A triumvirate of forces scouring across Emily Brontë’s life and work.

Brontë’s nature is not manicured or cultivated, but an untamed, raw beauty. As the little piano riffles of ‘High Waving Heather’ sketch in the endless moor-top breeze (just as likely to be a bitterly whipping wind!), Becky and Rachel sing alternate lines, before they run together in a harmonic stream.

Connecting with nature is therapeutic. ‘Shall Earth No More Inspire Thee’ makes a plaintive and heartfelt cry for its subject to re-embrace nature to gain relief from inner torment. Yet ‘Lines’ conveys the sadness of finding that nature cannot soothe those who do not allow it in.

‘Remembrance’ has been set to an arrangement of a traditional tune, which pairs very well with this heavily Romantic lament. But it’s the deceptively simple and placatory dissembling of ‘She Dried Her Tears And They Did Smile’, set to a slow waltz, that really gets under the skin.

Some of the songs comprise several poems in well-considered conjunctions, such as ‘Deep Deep Down In The Silent Grave’ partnered with the equally solemn ‘Oh Hinder Me By No Delay’. But it’s ‘The Night Is Darkening Around Me’ where the dread and defiance of “I will not, cannot go” is perfectly counterpointed by the tender ‘I’ll Come When Thou Art Saddest’. Bridging back to the first poem via a short poem fragment, ‘I Would Have Touched The Heavenly Key’, this is a delightfully constructed track.

The refrain of crows, clocks and footsteps opening ‘O Evening Why’ suggests this as a logical end to the album, but perhaps it’s just too downbeat, as Becky sings the first poem in a dirgey minor before Rachel joins with the equally tonally bleak ‘It’s Over Now; I’ve Known It All’. Instead, the brighter ‘I’m Happiest When Most Away’ escorts the listener back to the moors and leaves them contemplating the shifting night skies at the top of the world.

Su O’Brien

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Recording the Brontë song cycle:

Adrian McNally talks to Dave Freak about The Unthanks and Molly Drake

Molly Drake
Photograph by Sarah Mason

The songs of Molly Drake have been slowly seeping into public consciousness for the best part of a decade. There was a fleeting glimpse of her home recordings on the Nick Drake-and-co compilation Family Tree in 2007, followed by an album of her home recordings in 2013. Tracey Thorn and Eliza Carthy are among the artists who’ve since recorded cover versions, but it’s arguably The Unthanks’ The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake which really pushes Molly into the spotlight.

Released last year as the fourth in The Unthanks’ ongoing Diversions series, the project (spread over two albums, the second billed as Extras) was created with the direct input of Molly’s daughter, actress Gabrielle Drake, and has been described by the band as some of their best work.

For many, Molly – who passed away in 1993 – has been simply the mother of treasured songwriter Nick Drake whose reputation, based on three previously obscure (though now ridiculously popular) albums, continues to grow. And while her influence on Nick has been acknowledged, the arrival of the private demos tell us she was more than a footnote, but an equally rare and impressive talent in her own right.

“Certainly I think that an element of Gabrielle’s motivation to release her mother’s music was to show the world that her brother, the troubled troubadour, who we are often encouraged to think was born into a stuffy upper middle class English family, with parents who didn’t understand him, in fact had a mother with as much emotional introspection and poetic articulacy as he,” says The Unthanks Adrian McNally. “We can see now that Nick was from a close and loving family, with inspiration and talent passed down.”

When it came to arranging Molly’s starkly recorded material the band explored two approaches.

“On some songs, we have been quite faithful and sympathetic. With others, we have created totally different chordal and arrangement structures, retaining Molly’s story, sentiments and tune, but removing the vernacular of the time she wrote them in, to present them in a way that hopefully shows the quality of the song as being completely independent of the music of the time,” says McNally.

“Some of the creativity that produced those results was born out of necessity. As a piano player, I do not have Molly’s chops. I am not versed in the styles and ornamentations of her day. In most cases, my starting point, which is a common one in The Unthanks, was to get Rachel or Becky to do an iPhone recording of themselves singing a Molly song unaccompanied. I work to that only, so I am free from and not influenced by the song’s original chords and voicings, which often results in a completely different sounding song – because of course, a melody can be given a totally different emotion resonance, if it is set to different chords or rhythms.

“Only in instances where that route proves to be a dead end, do I then go to Molly’s originals.

“This is not a hard and fast rule. There are some instances when just through listening, a decision is made to remain faithful, or that an alternative idea is instantly recognised.

“In all cases, it is the song that comes first,” he stresses. “If we rework, it’s because we can see another way of capturing or putting a different spin on the sentiment of the song, or if we don’t, it’s because we cannot see a better way of expressing the sentiment of the song.

Touring the album last year, McNally and the band were touched by the way audiences connected with the material.

“The show is very subtly lit, so it was more possible than normal, to see faces in the audience, and quite how many tears were being shed!” he says.

“Molly’s writing is the very essence of bittersweet. In defence of her mother’s leanings towards darkness, Gabrielle has said of her mother that ‘happiness was something she understood profoundly – the more so, because she was so conscious of its opposite – sorrow.

“It’s the understanding and acceptance of both as part of life that brings about the condition of yearning that is equal parts hopeful and melancholic, and it’s the equality between beauty and tragedy that breaks our hearts, I feel.”

And while the songs have been the main focus for many, as The Unthanks’ album rightly pointed out, there’s also Molly’s poems too, which were recorded for the project by Gabrielle.

“It’s not just the songs. Her poetry too, through Gabrielle’s performances, is incredibly effecting. Every one of Gabrielle’s performances caused a strong emotional reaction in me on first listen, be that tears or laughter – both of which were caused by the same ingredient – beauty.

“Molly’s messages are profound, but the joy I feel is towards the brilliance and precision with which the truth of that message is articulated. The success of any art should ultimately be judged on how successful the artist has been in conveying what they intended to.

“On those terms, Molly’s writing is amongst the best I’ve ever heard.”

Dave Freak

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The Unthanks perform The Songs Of Molly Drake at Lunar Festival (26-29 July 2018) in Tanworth-In-Arden, Warwickshire (the home of the Drake family) on Friday 27 July 2018. Other artists appearing at the festival include Goldfrapp, The Stranglers, Amadou and Mariam, Songhoy Blues, and Jane Weaver.

For more information, see: lunarfestival.co.uk

Promo video:

THE UNTHANKS – Diversions Volume 4: The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake / Extras (RabbleRouser Music RRM016/RRM017)

Diversions 4For this, their fourth volume of Diversions, the Unthanks have chosen The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake. Inspired by hearing the limited release 2012 CD of her works (a set of songs, accompanied by a booklet of poetry) and spurred on by a pre-existing love of her son Nick’s works, hindsight suggests there was a kind of inevitability to this project.

Molly Drake’s songs often offer poignant, emotional insights into some of the darker recesses of the human psyche. In my view, the songs generally work much better than the poems. Sometimes the poetry feels rather stiff, straining to perform within the chosen verse metre. Perhaps age has tarnished some of the phrases. The songs seem to give her more freedom, allowing her flashes of brilliance in observations, in the way she describes a feeling or a situation.

Of course, The Unthanks aren’t the only artists to have responded to Molly Drake. Eliza and Martin Carthy’s 2014 version of ‘Happiness’ featured a special live appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, by Gabrielle Drake, the stalwart custodian of her family’s legacy. The difference between their version and the one on this album is intriguing. The Carthys’ version seems more robust, whereas The Unthanks leave the song’s fragility nakedly exposed.

This album, too, features Gabrielle Drake, here reciting her mother’s lyrics. Look out for her – be quick! – at the final gig of the current tour at London’s Barbican Centre on 28 May. This will be her first live performance together with the band, as the recordings were all done separately.

Molly Drake’s song recordings were usually quite short and accompanied only by herself on piano. Recorded by her husband, at his insistence, they were not intended for public consumption and aren’t of studio quality. In fact, they can often sound decidedly quaint to modern ears, but they offer some delicately lovely melodies and quirky insights into dark recesses of the human psyche. But that’s not all and, as The Unthanks are at pains to explain, there is a dry humour and an unexpected optimism in many of the songs.

From this relatively raw material, Adrian McNally has done his usual stunning job of creating atmospheric, ethereal arrangements, either working with the original melodies or creating new and sympathetic ones. Becky and Rachel deliver their seemingly effortless yet otherworldly vocal performances with tenderness and care, supported by the other able musicians in the band.

‘Woods In May’ has been slowed down and made spookier; the added clarinet on ‘How Wild The Wind Blows’ emphasises the song’s wistfulness and ‘Soft Shelled Crabs’ – never recorded by Molly but given a delightful arrangement based on Gabrielle’s memories of her mother singing it – might, in our unkinder world nowadays, be retitled “snowflakes”.

‘I Remember’ seems like a wry take on ‘I Remember It Well’ from the musical, Gigi with its two souls not quite as united as they might like to imagine. ‘Never Pine For The Old Love’ is simply sound advice and quite a few of the songs deliver similar words of wisdom. By contrast, poems like ‘Night Is My Friend’ or ‘Two Worlds’ seem very raw, grief-riven and hollow-eyed, but their honesty is indisputable.

The Unthanks have delivered a beautiful album (and a half if you count the Extras – and you really should). It feels like a fragile thing, eggshell-delicate, something to treasure and keep for best.

Su O’Brien

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Promo video:

THE UNTHANKS – Archive Treasures (2005-2015) (RabbleRouser Music)

THE UNTHANKS  Archive TreasuresThe limited edition Memory Box is all sold and we lesser mortals must content ourselves with these fourteen tracks to celebrate The Unthanks’ tenth anniversary. Actually, the last piece dates from 2000 but that is The Unthank Family Band so we won’t be picky. All the tracks are rare or obscure – live, radio sessions or demos – making this record a real treasure trove for fans.

The album opens with Chrissie Hynde’s ‘2000 Miles’, their 2015 Christmas single, and is followed by three live songs dominated by hefty piano. ‘On A Monday Morning’ is probably by the newly-renamed Unthanks with Adrian McNally at the keyboard but ‘I Wish, I Wish’ and ‘Blue Bleezin Blind Drunk’ feature Stef Connor, who otherwise went unrecorded with The Winterset as they were back then.

Now we have the full band with ‘Close The Coalhouse Door’, ‘Alifib/Alifie’ and ‘The Gallowgate Lad’ all live with Robert Wyatt’s long composition departing a little from their usual arranging style: a big drum sound and gorgeous brass fading into gentle piano and strings and building up again to a mighty finish. ‘Felton Lonnin’ and ‘Tar Barrel In Dale’ are radio sessions and ‘Queen Of Hearts’ is an alternative demo from 2009.

Then come the outside projects. ‘Sexy Sadie’ comes from the Mojo reworking of The Beatles and given away with the magazine. ‘A Dream Of A Tree In A Spanish Graveyard’ was recorded with Ian MacMillan for the concept album Harbour Of Songs and ‘Oak, Ash And Thorn’ is from the project album of the same name and is possibly guilty of stretching the song out too much. Certainly it’s much more solemn than Peter Bellamy’s original. The Unthank Family track is something of a novelty – I guess that’s George Unthank singing but it’s definitely Becky and Rachel clogging.

Archive Treasures is certainly a fan album with sufficient unreleased tracks to guarantee its popularity. Its division into more or less four chapters makes for a coherent whole and it is essentially a record of highlights from a long career that has made The Unthanks one of the top acts on the folk scene today.

Dai Jeffries

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‘2000 Miles’ live at The Union Chapel:

Unthanks celebrate ten years with a box of memories

Unthanks celebrate ten years with a box of memories

“If folk music is life, and for life, then ten years is nothing, right? We mean to go on, for as long as our togetherness supports and not stifles our mutual creativity. No need for best-of cash-ins or fond retrospectives just yet. This collection is more an exercise in housekeeping. The potential riches gathering dust on my studio shelves have long needed investigation and order. I’ve spent many hours in the last month listening back (not all of it was good!), to bring together a small selection of snapshots across our first 10 years. It’s a little ‘warts and all’ in places, but we hope you enjoy it for that. We’ve also tried to round up some pieces that until now have only been available on disparate sources and bring them together for you in one place. Rather than a summary of the last 10 years (whole chunks of our history are absent from it), this record is more like the missing jigsaw pieces. It’s satisfying that our brief period with Stef Conner at the piano gets some documentation here, for instance. It could easily have been a double CD, so it’s not completist exactly, but certainly we can now go forward with slightly tidier studio shelves and head space to relish the next 10 years.” – Adrian McNally, Oct 2015.

Taken from the sleeve notes of Archive Treasures (2005-2015)

In quiet, understated celebration of their 10th anniversary, The Unthanks release a 76 minute CD of rarities, exclusive live tracks, demos and outtakes. It is the only item available for individual purchase from The Unthanks Memory Box – a limited edition 10th anniversary box of Unthanks treasure, including this CD, a
live DVD, 3 books, a 7” single, prints, postcard and photos, all hand-finished and signed by the band. They’re almost sold out already.

Archive Treasures (2005-2015) could be described as a fan album and really illustrates how free and uninhibited the musical philosophy of The Unthanks has been over 10 years. There is no greater contrast on the record than listening to snapshots of childhood folk clubs recordings, next to a previously unreleased live version of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Alifib/Alifie’, illustrating a bravery and willingness to weather judgement from listeners and critics with musical vocabulary and listening habits less expansive, but ultimately a readiness to believe in the universality of music and the open-mindedness of their audience.

Organised on the record in sections, the album features never-before-heard Winterset recordings, live recordings of the 10 piece Unthanks from Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre, radio session tracks, childhood folk-club snapshots, a new Christmas single, a very different work-in-progress version of ‘Queen of Hearts’, three years before it appeared as a single on Last, plus tracks which have previously only been available on compilation albums featuring other acts, such as crowd favourite ‘Tar Barrel In Dale’, The Beatles’s ‘Sexy Sadie’, Peter Bellamy’s ‘Oak, Ash And Thorn’ and from Adrian McNally’s Harbour Of Songs album, a collaboration with fellow Barnsleyite, poet Ian McMillan.

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THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY SINGLE

The Unthanks – ‘2000 Miles’ / ‘Tar Barrel In Dale’

The Unthanks release a dark, wintry version of 2000 Miles by The Pretenders, backed by the much loved Tar Barrel in Dale, written by Rachel & Becky Unthank’s dad George Unthank about the New Year’s Eve fire tradition at Allendale, Northumberland, featured live every year for a good few now, on BBC Radio 6 Music’s Christmas outside broadcast with Radcliffe and Maconie.

THE 10TH ANNIVESARY BOX

The Unthanks Memory Box

A Limited Edition 10th Anniversary Box of Unthanks Treasures

Only available direct from the band and bursting with exclusive, unreleased content, The Unthanks Memory Box will arrive hand-finished, stamped, numbered, signed and posted with the owner’s name on it. Pre-orders will leave our studio on December 7th and arrive in time for Christmas. There are 1500 copies and all but around 100 have sold as pre-orders already.

The box includes:

The Unthanks Archive Treasures (2005-2015) A 76 minute + CD of rarities, exclusive live tracks, unreleased demos and outtakes.

– The Unthanks On Film A 90+ DVD including a feature length film of the Mount The Air tour, live from Newcastle City Hall, plus archive extras including beautiful footage from Abbey Road of Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, the Shipyards films from Horncliffe Mansion and animated single videos.

– The Unthanks Songbook A 60 page book of song words, including original handwritten cuttings from the personal songbooks of Rachel and Becky Unthank.

– The Unthanks Kitchen At last! By popular demand of our singing weekenders, a recipe book of dishes made at The Unthanks Northumberland winter weekends.

– The Unthanks Unsung A 30 pages for you for you to start your own songbook.

– The first ever Unthanks 7” single ..featuring the only physical copies of the Christmas single, 2000 Miles and Tar Barrel in Dale.

– 2 Signed Art Prints by Becky Unthank and Natalie Rae Reed (artist for Mount the Air cover) and 2 postcards by Natalie Rae Reed

– A handful of snaps and a signed screen-printed card

* A scrap book of tour diaries and never before seen photos released next year, will complete the box. This is not included in the price of the box. *

So that’s a 70 min CD, 90 min DVD, 3 books, 2 postcards, 7″single, signed card, 2 prints and a bunch of photos…

** All for just £35! ** Pre-Order this limited edition box now at
www.the-unthanks.com

 

THE UNTHANKS – Mount The Air (Rabble Rouser Music RRM013)

the-unthanks-Mount-The-AirNot exactly the sort of album to put to get the party going, the first new studio release by the quintet in four years carries with it the chill of a crisp winter’s day, hoar frost on the leaves and rime glittering on the ground, your breath curling like smoke wisps. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

Always pushing the boundaries, they boldly open with the glacial ten and a half minute title track, composed by pianist-producer Adrian McNally and co-written by Becky Unthank, based on a one-verse Dorset ditty, that marries folk with brass tempered jazz, featuring improv trumpeter Tom Arthurs to conjure echoes of Miles Davis and Gil Evans circa Sketches of Spain.

The musical mood is sustained on the more traditional-hued, piano-backed, Rachel’s huskily sung ‘Madam’ and the more strings-enrobed ‘Died For Love’, only a heartbeat of silence between stopping them from flowing as one, from courtship to tragedy. While the ambience remains, things stretch out a little more on ‘Flutter’ as a, well, fluttering of trip hop beats run across the lush strings before ‘Magpie’, Becky, Rachel and Niopha Keegan singing in harmony (virtually unaccompanied save for the minimalist drone backdrop), brings a medieval air to their adaptation of the dark nursery rhyme ‘One For Sorrow’ with its “Devil, Devil I defy thee” refrain.

Catching you off-guard, a sweeping cascade of piano and string introduces the mournful eleven-minute ‘Foundling’, sounding like some 1930s cinema score, trumpet and percussive cymbals adding to the pulsing textures of a number based on the 18th century story of Thomas Coran’s Foundling Hospital and sung, rather like an extract from a folk opera, in the persona of a young, luckless mother talking about having to abandon her daughter. This, in turn, inspired Rachel to make her songwriting debut, devising new verses for the evergreen ‘Golden Slumbers’ for what would become ‘Last Lullaby’, the lilting melody carried, primarily, by McNally’s tinkling piano and Keegan’s fiddle.

After its incipient warmth, the wintry atmosphere returns for the melancholic ‘Hawthorn’ (“why is my heart as light as lead?”) with the sibling harmonies against plaintive piano and forlorn trumpet, giving way to the first of the album’s two instrumentals, ‘For Dad’, a lament written by and spotlighting Keegan as a tribute to her late father and poignantly featuring his voice and her child-self at the start. The second, and album closer, the skittish, melody-circling ‘Waiting’, written by guitarist/bassist Chris Price, conjuring Penguin Café thoughts and featuring drummer Martin Douglas on tabla and McNally on a battered chord organ. Sandwiched between is the slow waltzing ‘Poor Stranger’, the album’s most straightforward and most obviously accessible number with 19th century musical hall hints to its warning about false-hearted lovers.

Recorded in their own makeshift Northumberland studio, and redolent with the sisters’ Northern accents, it’s had a long, and possibly difficult, gestation, but not only has the wait has been well worth it, in their inventive and inspired fusions and experiments around the folk genre, it offers a tantalising prospect of the horizons they may yet explore.

Mike Davies

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‘Mount The Air’ – single version: