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:

MARTIN GREEN – Flit live

Photograph by Genevieve Stevenson
Photograph by Genevieve Stevenson

Cambridge Junction, 22 October 2016

Following its premiere at Edinburgh Festival in August 2016, Martin Green’s latest musical concept Flit, heads out on tour, starting in Cambridge. There’s a bit of a delay getting into the venue, which the staff member working the queue tells us is due to some technical issues. But, he smiles broadly, it will be well worth the wait.

It’s immediately clear that this show about migration is an ambitious undertaking that sets out to unsettle the audience. The set looms like a primitive cave of wrinkled brown paper – a flimsy and uncomfortable temporary refuge. In its midst stands an enormous 3D zoetrope with three reels. There is a human figure walking, then running. Another is a bird in flight. The third transforms from bird to human as it rotates. The reels are swapped out over the performance, using a variety of illumination techniques to showcase them in different ways (strobe haters beware). The thrum of the turning machinery lends a further dimension to the sound – it could be a ship’s engine, a lorry: the unseen machinery that migrants rely on.

Crew and band members appear without any fanfare, walking on in line, all dressed in removal men’s drab brown overalls. Apart from Becky Unthank, that is, who’s in an anonymous sacking-like dark brown dress. It’s yet another visual reminder that tonight is about movement, migration, instability and uncertainty.

Respecting the seriousness of the subject matter, the band simply get on with it. It’s a performance without any real casual chat to the audience. Audio clips are interspersed with Green’s family anecdotes, an effective blend of the universal and the personal. As he builds to a furious crescendo at the fact that the conditions that drove his grandmother from the Nazis are being repeated in the present day, there is real passion, a visceral connection that sends shivers down the spine. His howls of being “fucking angry” are set against a massive distorted tidal wave of guitar from Dominic Aitchison (Mogwai) And Adrian Utley (Portishead) – a wail of distress and rage.

The soundscape created for this project is a challenging meeting of electronica, including a percussive rack of handsaws, married with the howls and skritchings of electric guitars. Against this powerful sonic backdrop, the accordion and the sweetness of the singers’ voices seem all the more startling. Becky Unthank and Adam Holmes’s voices blend deliciously together, her huskiness a perfect foil for his smooth, rich tones. The often mantra-like repetitive lyrics form soundwashes to underscore Whiterobot’s animation which is projected behind – and sometimes even in front of – the band. Delicately beautiful, yet slightly sinister stop-frame animations of folded paper flicker, repeating the central motifs of the human form and birds in flight. Sometimes the figures meet up inside photo frames, vividly suggesting the lives and families left behind.

As it started, so it concludes, without encores or any attempt to lighten the mood. It’s not about crowd-pleasing, but about feelings. This project is meant to evoke sadness, anger, and empathy with the displaced. We need to understand the urgency of their need to migrate, leaving lives, families, homes behind them. The band simply walks away.

After a moment, Green returns briefly, but only to offer thanks to his grandmother, in the front row of tonight’s audience and the inspiration behind the Flit project.

If there’s any minor gripe, it’s the sound quality tonight. Guitars threaten to swamp some of the subtlety, audio clips seem muddy. Whether it’s teething problems, my seat’s too close to the speaker or whatever, it doesn’t really detract from the power and emotion of the performance. As we leave, we pass the staff member and tell him, yes, it was definitely worth the wait.

Su O’Brien

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‘Strange Sky’ – official video:

MARTIN GREEN – Flit (Reveal Records, REVEAL062CDX)

flitGreen, you may be aware, is the accordionist and electronic experimentalist with Lau, and his new solo album, Flit, is no less an inventive, boundary-pushing affair that, inspired by accounts of human movement across the globe, focuses on the zeitgeist folk scene theme of migration. As the title suggests it’s a restless piece of work, one for which he’s called on the vocal talents of Becky Unthank, John Smith and Adam Holmes as well as Mogwai’s Dominic Aitchison on bass and Adrian Utley from Portishead providing guitars, bass, synths and percussion. Green’s also collaborated on the material, co-writing with Karine Polwart, Anais Mitchell, Sandy Wright and Falkirk-born former Arab Strap founder, Aidan Moffat.

It’s the latter who opens proceedings, speaking his own words on the scratchy, pulsing ‘The Living Wind’ , a narrative essentially about the colonialist destruction and displacement of indigenous peoples, before the first of four Polwart numbers, the brooding, atmospherically ominous ‘Strange Sky’, breathily sung by Unthank, with its sudden sonic storms. By contrast, the second Polwart collaboration, ‘Wrackline’, is a sparse and ghostly thing, ebbing and flowing like the waves washing up on the shore that it references, gathering midway into a tribal clatter that gradually slows before a hushed close.

Sandwiched between the Polwart tracks is ‘Roll Away’, Holmes’ deep voice wrapping itself around Mitchell’s lyrics about being transported far away from home across the ocean, inspired by the story of his grandfather and grandmother, and a folksy melody that vaguely recalls ‘Shenandoah’. The Polwart/Green material returns with ‘The Suitcase’, electronic effects backdropping Moffat’s spoken introduction about the narrator’s memories of his father (‘respect money, money keeps you safe, he told me once, as if to explain a decade and a half of absence….he was alone, even with us’) before a resonant pulsing bass note takes over along with a duet by Unthank and Holmes. ‘Laws Of Motion’ again strikes a contrast, returning to more familiar folk strains, sung by Holmes accompanied by a resonant circling bassline. The only track to which lyrics are printed on the insert, it specifically references the migrant crisis with lines about being “cast adrift on open seas” and “searchlights at the tunnel gate, barbed wire at the harbour. Restless men and women blow like sands across the border”.

‘Clang Song’ and ‘Smallest Plant’ are solely written by Green, the former a collage of seething, dark electronics and the latter, featuring him on accordion with sonorous and disorienting synth noises, a more mournful traditional folk lament duetted by Unthank and Holmes. Finally, with words by Wright, a brooding repeated guitar line from Utley and Devonian folkie John Smith on vocals, ‘The Singing Sands’, the shortest track at under three minutes, is a spectral, minimalist sketch of loss and ‘the mocking waves’.

Immediate and accessible it most certainly is not, but, while it may be challenging, if you open yourself to experience it, it’s a hauntingly powerful piece of work.

Mike Davies

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‘Strange Sky’ – official 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

 

VARIOUS ARTISTS – Folk Awards 2015 (Proper PROPERFOLK16)

FolkAwards2015It’s that time again when the folk world looks back and hands out gongs to the great and good while conspiracy theories abound. Actually there have been far fewer of those this year; the detractors must have finally decided that the BBC keeps the names of the voters secret to avoid them being showered by gifts of Rolexes and vintage champagne in attempts to win approval. As if!

All in all, we’re looking back on a vintage year. I listen to more new music than the average punter and I’d heard only ten of the twenty-three tracks chosen to represent 2014 in this collection, so I’m clearly not trying hard enough. As ever the double-CD is well programmed by the four compilers – this is not just an audio catalogue: it has to stand as a listenable collection in its own right, which it does.

The opener is the sprightly ‘Moorlough Mary’ by Cara Dillon which breaks the ice nicely. Next is ‘It Would Not Be A Rose’ from Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker sounding rather more bitter taken out of the context of their album. You might expect The Will Pound Band to rock the rafters but the selection here is the rather down-beat ‘Jimmy Ward’s’ given a bluesy, slightly jazzy persona. That eases into Jez Lowe’s almost lullaby ‘The Pitmen Poets’ and a traditional Gaelic song from Cruinn. By now you’re settled back into your armchair and drifting, only to snapped back to wakefullness by Nancy Kerr’s ‘Never Ever Lay Them Down’ a super song from an album that has somehow managed to elude me so far.

The first set closes with The Young’Uns’ ‘John Hill’ with its borrowed tune and piano sounding almost like a hymn and second opens with the similarly powerful but restrained ‘Waking Dreams (Awake, Awake)’ from Martin & Eliza Carthy. Then, from out of nowhere, comes Naomi Bedford with ‘The Spider And The Wolf’, a song written by her partner Paul Simmonds and taken from her album A History Of Insolence. The other in-yer-face track here is ‘Bedlam’ by Stick In The Wheel and if you haven’t heard them yet you’re in for treat and you won’t be able to forget ‘I Saw The Dead’ by Martin Green with Becky Unthank in a hurry either.

Finally we have the four nominees for The Young Folk Award: Talisk, Wildwood Kin, Roseanne Reid and Cup O’Joe. Impossible to say who the winner will be but I’d like to hear more of Roseanne Reid.

Dai Jeffries