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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