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

Please support us and order via our UK or US Storefront 


Click banner above to order featured CD/ Vinyl/ Download/ Book/ DVD

Physical link for the UK Store is: https://folking.com/folking-store/


Click banner above to order featured CD/ Vinyl/ Download/ Book/ DVD

Physical link to the US Storehttps://folking.com/folking-us-storefront/


Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us. Can’t find what you are looking for? Search Amazon Store below.

Artist website: www.the-unthanks.com

Recording the Brontë song cycle:

REG MEUROSS – 12 Silk Handkerchiefs (Hatsongs HAT013)

12 Silk HandkerchiefsThis is not your typical Reg Meuross album. Not that it doesn’t have his consummate songwriting with its finely crafted melodies and emotive resonance and not that it isn’t beautifully sung; it’s just that, while he features on backing, Reg only sings two tracks. It is, in fact, a concept album, a song cycle about the Hull triple trawler tragedy when, in 1968, bad weather sank three separate trawlers in less than a month, with only one survivor from the total crew of fifty-nine men.

The album is based on Brian W. Lavery’s book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries, which documents the subsequent campaign of Lillian ‘Big Lil’ Bilocca, one of the trawlermen’s wives and her friends to bring about changes in the fishing industry. As such, it comprises both song and spoken word, the narration delivered by Lavery himself, while Hull folk singers Sam (as in Samantha) Martyn and Mick McGarry provide both vocal and spoken tracks.

There’s six songs, each preceded by Lavery’s scene setting, opening with the waltztime shanty ‘Wash Her Man Away, McGarry on vocals, Meuross providing harmonies and acoustic and Martyn on harmonium, a number rooted in superstitions about bringing back luck, here a meticulously tidy housewife not doing the laundry on the day before her skipper husband sets sail, the lyrics evoking such portents as the men leaving their small change behind.

The intro to ‘I Am A Fish House Woman’ conjures the fellowship of the women in the cold of the fish processing plant, detailing the work, talk of missing ships and introducing Lily, on her last shift for two years. This time, it’s Martyn on vocals, Meuross on strummed dulcimer, for a six minute, chorus-friendly anthem to the women, the conditions they work under (“my mother was a skinner ‘til the freezing took her lung”) in their nine-hour day, slicing the ‘silver darlings’ and how, while the men are away “fighting for their lives, we’re fighting for their rights”.

Sung heartbreakingly in the first person, ‘John Barry Rogers’ recounts the story of the eighteen-year-old deckhand who, when their ship went down in an Atlantic storm, saved the life of first mate Harry Eddom, the sole survivor, getting him onto the raft, before dying of exposure. Backed by harmonium and guitar, McGarry again sings lead on a classic Meuross lyric as the doomed boy talks of his mother and sweetheart, left behind in the siren call of the sea.

As you might guess, one of the two tracks sung by Meuross, ‘The Man The Sea Gave Back’, turns the focus on Eddom, a flavour of early Dylan to its brisk strum with Martyn adding flute, as he sings of Eddom watching the other two survivors eventually fall victim to the cruel sea.

Both the narrative and the lyrics to ‘Sleep You Safely’, sung by Martyn, turn the spotlight back on Bilocca, who was ejected from the campaign group she’d founded after appearing on the Eamonn Andrews show when, asked how the men spent their time on shore, talked of the single ones going to the pub “with their tarts”, a term that had a different meaning back home at Hessle Road to the one the studio audience assumed. The men she’d fought for also turned against her after a ban on fishing in bad weather meant they lost catches to Icelandic trawlers, but counterpointed by a meeting with a young galley boy on her way back from the meeting.

A melancholic, slow paced number, again featuring one of Meuross’s trademark uplifting choruses, it gives way to the lilting title track, the intro noting how, after her husband’s death, Lily moved home to a council house, weighed down by her treatment by the media and the feeling of being abandoned and her fight ignored, falling into ill health and eventually dying of cancer at 59 in 1988.

The title refers to her last request to her daughter to buy the handkerchiefs which, on the day before she died, she handed out to all those who had looked after her. Sung by Meuross with Martyn and McGarry on harmonies, the simply strummed song itself takes a more metaphorical approach, the handkerchiefs also symbolic of, as the chorus notes, the months of the year, “the twelve holy fisherman keeping her loved ones from fear” and “all the company men In their temples of greed she battled and beat in the end And for all the men and boys who are called by the sea…to bring them home safely to thee.”

It ends with ‘Times and Tides’, a reading by McGarry from Lavery’s book that, like the album, is a finely spun tribute testament to the men who risk their lives to harvest the ocean and the women “who never waved…Nor wavered” and the kids waiting for their fathers’ return “Christmas every twenty-one days.” It’s rich in honest emotion, deep humanity, resonant lyrics and infectious melodies. Typical Reg Meuross after all, then.

Mike Davies

Please support us and order via our UK or US Storefront 


Click banner above to order featured CD/ Vinyl/ Download/ Book/ DVD
Physical link for the UK Store is: https://folking.com/folking-store/


Click banner above to order featured CD/ Vinyl/ Download/ Book/ DVD
Physical link to the US Storehttps://folking.com/folking-us-storefront/


Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us. Can’t find what you are looking for? Search Amazon Store below.

Artist’s website: www.regmeuross.com

’12 Silk Handkerchiefs’ – live: