Unthanks - Profile

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 24 / 4 / 2019

Unthanks - Profile

Ben Howarth profiles the Unthanks' extraordinary three CD latest album which combines elements of jazz and modern classical music as well as traditional folk and sets to music the work of several poets.


The Unthanks latest release, ‘Lines’, is described by the band as a collection of ‘medium players’ - three discs ranging between 21 to 33 minutes in length, presented together in a box set but also available to purchase separately. The theme tying the three discs together is poetry – each is a separate commission where the Unthanks set other people’s verse to their own music. Part one is ‘Lillian Bilocca’, originally performed as part of theatre piece for the Hull City of Culture in 2017, with words by Maxine Peake, telling the story of the campaigner Lillian Bilocca and the women of Hessle Road, who were instrumental in securing improved safety standards for fishermen following the triple trawler disaster of 1968. However, despite initially being hailed for her work, she was then held up as a scapegoat for the industry’s decline and criticised for meddling in "male affairs". She was blacklisted and ended up working as a cleaner in a nightclub, before dying of cancer aged 1959. Part two goes further back in time, to World War One. These songs were originally written to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of 1914, and these recordings were then designed to coincide with the anniversary of the armistice. A range of poets’ work is included, with a focus on the lesser-known work of female war poets. The oldest poems in this set, written by Emily Brontë come on the third disc, commissioned by the Brontë Society to mark her 200th birthday. These were recorded on Emily’s own piano, in the Parsonage in Haworth on the Yorkshire moors. A tourist attraction by day, all of these songs were recorded after closing time. Unlike the first two discs, which feature the full Unthanks line-up and guests, these tracks only feature pianist and arranger Adrian McNally and the two Unthanks sisters, Rachel and Becky on vocals. The Unthanks are still typically thought of as a folk act. Indeed, they have won multiple Radio 2 Folk Awards, including Album Of The Year for their seminal 2015 album, ‘Mount the Air’. They have not shunned their folk roots and the vocals still owe much to an upbringing spent singing in folk clubs (for example, the word love is very firmly pronounced with a Northumberland ‘o’ and not the more common ‘luv’). But, it has been more than a decade since their music could truly be described as folk. Their work now owes as much to jazz, modern classical and to their biggest songwriting influences, Robert Wyatt and Anthony and the Johnsons. Rather than worrying too much what genre they sit in, I’d point you instead to a recent description of the Unthanks as being a "cultural phenomenon." The three discs each show a different side of their art, though none make any attempt to shed their self-described status as "miserable buggers." Their collaboration here with Maxine Peake finds them building on the long-form cinematic style they developed to such striking effect on ‘Mount the Air’. Though are moments of joy and melancholy in these arrangements, the overriding tone is one of coiled tension and anger. As this was originally composed as an accompaniment, of the three it perhaps is the only one where you’d want to reference the original theatre piece for the full story. As a standalone piece of music, though, it remains striking. The story and context of the war poets are, of course, far better known and the music on this set has little heavy lifting to do. It finds the Unthanks in a collaborative mode, with songs from Sam Lee and Tim Dalling. However familiar the subject matter, the songs offer something new. Teresa Hooley’s ‘War Film’ goes direct to the gut, the story of a mother watching a war documentary (presumably footage from the Somme) and reminiscing about family bath times and wondering how it had turned into the "sudden terror" on screen, “my little son rotting in old men’s land out in the rain”. The work of Jessie Pope was written off as a propaganda by the poets as the front (Wilfred Owen dedicated ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ to her, not as a compliment). But it is shown to have more depth here, as the narrator “wonders if he’s warm enough”. But it ends heartbreakingly, “He’ll come up on top, somehow”. The Unthanks melancholy reading suggests that she knows he wouldn’t really. Finally, the Brontë settings find the Unthanks in stripped back setting, just piano and voice – with the creaks and idiosyncrasies of a centuries old family piano being brought back to life. The arrangements and vocals are consistently beautiful and – dare I say it – almost radio friendly. No short review could really do justice to a work of this breadth and ambition – the traditional album format could not contain it and, I have to admit, nor can the traditional album review format. All I can say is that this is a set that will absorb your attention for months to come and contains some of the most daring and original music I have heard since… well, since the last Unthanks album.

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Unthanks - Profile

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Lines (2019)
Extraordinary three CD latest album which combines elements of jazz and modern classical music as well as traditional folk and sets to music the work of several poets
Diversions Vol 4 –The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake (2017)
Mount the Air (2015)

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