UNTHANK: SMITH – Nowhere And Everywhere (Billingham Records)

Nowhere And EverywhereOn paper the notion of Paul Smith, guitarist frontman with alt-rock outfit Maximo Park and harmonium player and cellist Rachel Unthank making an album together would seem unlikely. However, it would seem he’s a closet folkie who was turned on to Jansch, Drake and Carthy as a teenager and it was he who approached Unthank with a proposal of working together. The result, Nowhere And Everywhere, is very much a traditional folk album, one steeped in the music and stories – and indeed accents and dialect – of their native North East, one that sets the stage with their unaccompanied verse-trading rendition of Northumbrian ballad ‘Captain Bover’, the tale of the notorious Tyneside press gang, learnt by Unthank from the singing of her father’s group, The Keelers.

One of three numbers that pass the six-minute mark, Trembling Bells percussionist Alex Neilson bringing a jazzy edge to a nagging bassline from Field Music’s David Brewis, ‘The Natural Urge’ is a Smith original inspired by the bleak landscapes of official WWI artist Paul Nash as he sings about human follow, the number stretching out into a lengthy, spooked and swaying instrumental close. It’s followed, in turn, by a rare songwriting excursion from Unthank, ‘Seven Tears’, which, their overlapped voices accompanied by clarinet drone, is based on the mythological ‘selkie’, seals that adopt human form on land, the title referring to how crying seven tears into the sea would call back the selkie lover.

Things remain minimal for the slow swaying eight-minute ‘O’ Mary Will You Go’, Smith’s setting of words by Teesside poet Richard Watson on a theme of economic migration, coloured by cymbal shimmers, clarinet  and fuzz guitar while another local poet, Tom Pickard, is the source of the lyrics to  the drone-arranged ‘What Maks Makems’, a poem about North East shipbuilding (Smith’s own father was a crick-neck welder)  taken from the Land Of Three Rivers anthology of North-East poetry.

It’s back to singing unaccompanied for a fine cover of Lal Waterson’s whimsical ‘Red Wine Promises’ before they get serious again with the sparse, mournful ‘Robert Kay’, a Smith original commissioned for the 1245 Sunflowers project in Stockton-On-Tees, commemorating the town’s fallen World War I soldiers, Kay, whose parents ran a pub called The Spread Eagle, as mentioned in the lyrics, on Dovecote Street, killed just days before he was due to return home.

The third of the lengthier tracks is a staple from the traditional repertoire, being the duo’s interpretation of ‘Lord Bateman’, the measured walking rhythm arrangement based on the version by Chris Wood, Smith and Unthank sharing lead vocals with cymbals, bass and clarinet adding their own textures to the cacophonous swirl. Penned by Graeme Miles, born in Greenwich but raised in Teesside and regarded as one of the most prolific folk songwriters of the last century, the eerie, unsettling ‘Horumarye’ with MacCalman’s dissonant clarinet and rumbling percussion accompanying the voices, evokes the sound of the wind whistling over the North Yorkshire moors. It ends with a brief bout of a capella carousing with ‘The King’, a song from the mummers tradition also known as ‘The Wren’ which Unthank says takes her back to pub sessions with her father in a Greatham village inn, a suitably glass-raising, rousing final flourish that spotlights the power of the unaccompanied voice to lift the spirits.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.facebook.com/unthanksmithmusic

‘What Maks Makems’ – official video: