Curated by Ian Carter and Nicola Kearey of Stick In The Wheel, the second volume of From Here is every bit as intriguing and entertaining as its predecessor. Recorded wherever the artists were with just two microphones, these performances are sometimes raw and earthy and sometimes delicate and beautiful. Some of the artists are well known, others less so and same is true of the music.
There is a sort of chronology about the album. It begins with what Nancy Kerr calls a mediaeval song, ‘Gan Tae The Kye’, which she pairs with a popular north-eastern tune ‘Peacock Followed The Hen’. From the same geographical area comes ‘The Sandgate Dandling Song’ sung by Rachel Unthank and I must admit that I’ve never really listened to it properly. It’s a lullaby, yes, but with a very hard story wrapped up in it and Rachel’s matter-of-fact delivery emphasises the hardship. The first instrumental set is the delightful ‘Cottenham Medley’ by C Joynes, about whom I know almost nothing.other than the fact that he lives in Cambridgeshire. The other two sets are from the north-east: Kathryn Tickell’s dazzling ‘Bonnie Pit Laddie/ Lads Of Alnwick’ and ‘Nancy Clough’ by Sandra and Nancy Kerr, who thus gets to open and close the set.
The chronology begins to break down now. Richard Dawson’s ‘The Almsgiver’ sounds old but which Richard wrote recently and is perfectly in keeping with the feeling of the project. You may think you know ‘Barbera Allen’ but this version by Mary Hymphreys & Anahata will be new to most listeners. Coincidentally (or not) it also comes from Cottingham. June Tabor revisits ‘The Kng Of Rome’ and rising star Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne tackles ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’. There are two distinct versions of this song, both by Charles Coborn, and Cohen goes for the political one. Both this and ‘The King Of Rome’ are set around the turn of the 20th century even though the latter was written much more recently. Appropriately, they are followed by Grace Petrie’s ‘A Young Woman’s Tale’, her updating of a song that began with the words “At the turning of the century…”, a clever juxtapositioning. Politics – although with a small “p” – return with Chris Wood’s ‘So Much To Defend’ which would appear to be made up of true stories.
Other, but not lesser, artists are Cath & Phil Tyler, Laura Smyth & Ted Kemp and Belinda Kempster, who is the mother of SITW’s Fran Foote and a very fine singer, now working as a duo with her daughter. That sort of emphasises the idea that we’re listening to a continuing tradition that has been caught in a moment of time.
Lines 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.
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
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.
The 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.
“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.
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…
Not 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.
Diversions Vol 2. constitutes perhaps the most daring and accomplished of musical adventures to date for The Unthanks Their paradoxical marriage of staunch traditionalism and sonic adventure continues in the shape of brand new collaboration with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, known as the best public subscription band in the world, celebrating their second successive year as National Champions of Great Britain.
The record is the culmination of a project that began as a commission from Brass: Durham International Festival, with Unthanks pianist, composer and producer Adrian McNally writing The Father’s Suite: a four movement piece in celebration of Rachel Unthank and McNally’s first child, born four weeks before the sold-out, premiere in Durham Cathedral.
The record kicks off with the televised performance of King of Rome that was so rapturously received at the BBC Folk Awards earlier this year.
The record also features a heartbreaking rendition of Trimdon Grange Explosion by Rachel Unthank, debut lead vocal performance by Niopha Keegan (Lagan Love) and Chris Price (his tongue in cheek Queen of Hearts, dubbed Croon of Hearts!) and re-workings of previous Unthanks material, including Fareweel Regality, Felton Lonnin, Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk Gan to the Kye and Newcastle Lullaby.
The cover illustration is by Becky Unthank (who sings King of Rome) and depicts the character Charlie from the song.
While all the tracks on this record were recorded live in concert halls, cathedrals and town halls; some in front of an audience and some not; it should not be regarded as a ‘live album’, in the lowly, lesser sense of the term. A live album would normally contain pieces that an artist has recorded more definitive studio versions of previously. That is not the case here. The scale of a brass band and the practicalities of singing with them almost necessitates live performance anyway, so why not in front of an audience? For better or worse, these are the definitive versions!
Diversions Vol 2. follows on from Vol. 1 (The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons) released in Dec 2011, and by the Autumn, Vol 3. there will be Vol. 3 – Songs from the Shipyards – a album of songs from the live soundtrack that The Unthanks perform to a new film about our shipbuilding past, touring in October. That will be 3 albums in a year from The Unthanks, or 4 in 18 months, counting their studio album ‘Last’.