Album Review: The Unthanks – Mount the Air

By on Thursday, 19th February 2015 at 12:00 pm
 

A journey through The Unthanks’ back catalogue reveals work of steadily increasing maturity, and that process continues on ‘Mount the Air’, their eighth studio album. Those patiently wishing for the end of the 4-year hiatus since ‘Last’ will surely not think their wait has been in vain, for this is a truly groundbreaking record. For the first time, all five core members are involved in the writing process: astonishingly, it’s the first time the eponymous sisters have contributed to the penning of the music they portray with such sincere emotion. On a practical level, the record was self-recorded and self-released, a brave step which speaks of the confidence the group have in it. Well-placed confidence, as it turns out.

A treatise could be written about the 10-minute title track alone. A big-band folk-jazz epic, ‘Mount the Air’ is a fairytale dream of love, of shedding the restrictions of the human form in a search for one’s soul mate. It almost goes without saying that the level of musicianship is superb: there’s a piercing trumpet part throughout, various bowed and blown ensembles… and then we get to the voices. Becky Unthank is first, her dusky voice at once humble yet passionate; Rachel has a clearer, more conventional, tone, and takes the second verse. Both different, distinctive, neither superior to the other. Either could be the voice of God’s wife – or indeed God herself. Perhaps it’s too much to say that, like looking at the infinite expanse of stars in a clear night sky, one can almost perceive in their voices the meaning of the Universe. But there’s certainly something elemental going on here, which transcends notes on a page or bits on a disc.

‘Madam’ is a touching courtship which switches imperceptibly between male and female perspectives, judging neither but exposing their distinctive frailties, desires and fears. There’s a dramatic crescendo of brass, hinting of their collaboration with the Brighouse and Rastrick band, which vies with Niopha Keegan’s violin for emotional impact.

‘Died for Love’ concludes the opening act with a companion-piece to ‘Madam’; this time death rears its ugly head, this time as the corollary, an uneasy bedfellow to love. Before I go any further, listeners of a tender disposition should be warned: these are powerful songs, overflowing with a deep emotion rarely confronted in our daily, shallow lives. One’s own emotional response cannot be accurately predicted, but when listening to The Unthanks’ music one should always be prepared for tears. And so it is on ‘Died for Love’. Quite apart from the unbearably sad narrative, the string-laden denouement is quite spectacular.

‘Flutter’ gives welcome respite. Featuring an original lyric and melody from Becky Unthank, there are clear hints of Portishead’s electric piano and syncopated drum work, and a lightness of touch that explains its popularity on the radio. It’s a welcome respite from the emotional content of the rest of the album, and a helpful introduction to the band’s work for beginners.

Continuing the bird-related themes, ‘Magpie’ is a sparse reading of Dave Dodds’ enduring traditional tale of the eponymous egg-stealer; the fact that it’s an oblique North-East sporting reference presumably doesn’t do any harm. The expansion of the well-known “one for sorrow” refrain into a proper song performed by a trio of two Unthanks and Keegan is a minimalist triumph.

Up next is the album’s other epic, ‘Foundling’. Adrian McNally was commissioned by Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital in London a couple of years before, but put it off due to time pressures, presumably due to the arrival of children. Which makes the content of this mournful waltz even more touching. The recurrent theme of delicate trumpet is present, to lift what is another 10 minutes of heart-rending folk storytelling. It segues into ‘Last Lullaby’, which appropriates a verse from The Beatles’ ‘Golden Slumbers’, then adds more lyrics which could easily have been part of the original. Lennon and McCartney surely get a writing credit here.

The Unthanks surely deserve to be considered one of the most important acts of the crossover folk scene. Their work is deeply rooted in English folk, but is simultaneously accessible to a broad audience. And a good thing too, as this collection demonstrates, this is some of the most beautiful and touching music being made today. Evoking pathos through their deeply touching storytelling, there’s more tightly-packed emotion here than many artists manage in a career. As a writer based in the North East I’m surely biased, but the region, and indeed the world, are lucky to have The Unthanks to keep alive its deep traditions of folk music and stories. Long may they endure.

9/10

Now out on their own RabbleRouser Music label, ‘Mount the Air’ is the Unthanks‘ newest album. The sisters begin a new UK tour later this month, starting Saturday the 21st of February in Southampton; all the details are this way.

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