RABBLEROUSER MUSIC 22nd Feb 2019
Always immaculately poised, The Unthanks are a pleasure that rewards close listening. Never background listening, listener focus brings out the detailed moods and storytelling. Contrasting sweet instrumental arrangements and flat North-Eastern vocals makes for a theatrical and intimate experience.
This is an artful creation, consisting of three mini albums, varying in length between twenty and thirty five minutes in length, each on a different theme. Available separately, or as a set, they explore three very different sets of womens’ lives: The Brontes, women in World War One, and a fishery worker. The music is always thoughtful and piano-led, full of air and space. Although these are song cycles, there are long and lovely introspective instrumentals with a sense of hanging, slow-moving feeling. The playing feels coiffeured and elegant as it carries tight, straight-forward tunes arranged in service of telling the story through mood and words.
My favourite of the three, Lillian Bilocca, tells us of women at home, men at sea, loneliness and loss. It treats the sea as a person and treats men and women as equally powerful and needed in the balance of sea work and emotional work, whilst seen as unequal: “A man may do a thousand things”: “We are strong and we are brave, our men insist we must behave”. However, men are in thrall to the sea: “You men are her servants, her serfs upon the surf”. Actress Maxine Peake wrote the words, which were then set by Adrian McNally for a theatre piece in Leeds.
The World War One cycle is set as letters and stories from the woman at home and the man at war, written by a trio of writers. “He was brave, well so was I”; “He quivered when he said goodbye”. The female vocals are, as ever, gorgeous in their expression and tone. We hear of a peaceful moment in the trenches but also the sudden terror while bathing a soft and vulnerable boy when the thought comes that he will grow to be a man, going to war, suffering, killing, dying. The first song; Roland and Vera is equally affecting, based on real letters, with the last, from Vera written in knowledge that Roland is already dead.
The Emily Bronte cycle is lovely and spare, with pensive slow piano and acres of space around the voice. The piano is Emily’s, recorded in the parsonage in Haworth by Adrian McNally. Dramatic sound effects illustrate with steps, bells, a door opening but the Emily’s poems float past me. That’s my loss but my appreciation of the music and singing more than compensates.
The Unthanks are a varying collective. There are the core three: Rachel and Becky Unthank plus Adrian McNally on piano and production duties. They supplement with other voices and instruments anywhere up to their full-strength touring band of ten. Here they use who and what they need to service the song and the effect is rather lovely and plaintively affecting.