The Unthanks’ ‘Lines’ — just released on Rabble Rouser — is a trilogy of song cycles inspired by poetry, focusing on three female perspectives across time – writer Emily Brontë, the female World War One poets, and British Hull fishing worker Lillian Bilocca. Andy Childs reviews.
Following the career of The Unthanks has so far been an absorbing, unpredictable and constantly enjoyable ride.
I must have seen them perform at least half a dozen times over the years with different line-ups and in a variety of venues and have invariably been intrigued at the way they have chosen to arrange and perform their music. Be it a large ensemble that includes drums, a string quartet and trumpet, or a ‘core five’ plus regular drummer Martin Douglas, or just a pared down trio of Rachel and Becky Unthank on vocals and Adrian McNally on piano, they have always explored the possibilities that their collective talent allows and as such have remained a potent musical force both live and on record.
Their ‘proper’ albums, particularly The Bairns, Here’s The Tender Coming and Mount The Air, are treasures that add considerably to the richness of the folk tradition. But not content to be tied down to a linear approach to music-making and eschewing the easy path to mass popularity, The Unthanks have instead followed their instincts and enthusiasms and also produced a series of records, appropriately called ‘Diversions’, which extend and expand their repertoire in rewarding and unexpected ways. The songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, the poems and songs of Molly Drake, a record with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, and Songs from the Shipyards – music composed for a film of the same name – are all ventures that they have successfully embraced.
This new 3-disc release, although not presented as such, could be seen as yet another diversion as it brings together three distinct projects that The Unthanks have collaborated on in recent years and which underline their seemingly limitless capacity for empathetic interpretation.
There are three ‘medium play’ records here (shorter than a long player but longer than an EP), available as a package or as separate CDs and LPs, and what connects them perhaps more than anything is the work of their hugely talented pianist/composer/arranger/producer Adrian McNally. If Rachel and Becky Unthank are the voices of this revered assemblage then Adrian McNally is surely the mastermind behind much of what is so great about them. As they are at pains to emphasise, “The Unthanks are not a duo. The Unthanks are and always have been, a band that includes their pianist, producer and composer Adrian McNally. Their identity as a core creative unit also includes Chris Price (basses and guitars) and Niopha Keegan (violin and voice).” Those of us who have followed their development this will have surely come to recognize this and should welcome this release as recognition of McNally’s contribution.
Each of the three records has a title and a theme. Disc 1, Lillian Bilocca, consists of five songs originally performed by The Unthanks in 2017, in Hull (which was the UK’s city of culture that year) for “the promenade site specific theatre piece The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca”. Bilocca (‘Big Lil’) is something of a tragic heroine. Along with other like-minded women in Hull she successfully campaigned for improved saftey for fishermen at sea following the triple trawler disaster of 1968 in which 58 men were killed. Her petition to the then Labour government resulted in “one of the biggest and most successful civil actions of the 20th century”. Her acclaim however was shortlived as she suffered discriminatory abuse for meddling in ‘men’s work’ and her shocking decline only ended when she died of cancer aged 59. Such desperately sad but inspirational subject matter needs a light but sensitive touch to make a lasting impression musically and the combination of McNally’s music and the lyrics of actor and writer Maxine Peake, who wrote the theatre piece, work to celebrate Bilocca’s courage and to underline the melancholy power that the sea has over life and death. McNally’s prelude is a short, foreboding piano motif that lodged in my head for the entire record and Rachel Unthank, singing as Lillian Bilocca on ‘The Sea Is A Woman’ is spine-tingling.
The mood hardly becomes any cheerier on the second disc, World War One, which contains songs written in 2014 for a project marking the opening year of the World War One centenary. A full band line-up here gives the record enormous depth and subtelty and again, McNally’s music and arrangements are a highlight. Singer and music collector Sam Lee opens the record with ‘Roland And Vera’, a poignant adaptation of correspondence between Vera Brittain and her soldier/fiance Roland Leighton who perished in the war. Anyone who has read Testament of Youth will know the story and appreciate the sensitivity with which it is handled here. The lyrical content on four of the other tracks is provided by poets from the period including Teresa Hooley’s devastating ‘War Film’ which is new to me and instantly memorable, and Jessie Pope’s poem ‘Socks’ which I’m sure I’ve heard The Unthanks performing at least twice in recent years. All of these songs have a plaintive beauty that perfectly suits the distinctive vocal harmonies of Rachel and Becky. Not surprisingly, given Adrian McNally’s crucial role in the making of these three records, is the predominance of the piano in the music and not just any old piano. The piano and vocals for ‘World War One’ were recorded at Caribou Recordings in Scotland using the piano that Gustav Holst no less wrote ‘The Planets Suite’ on, and on the third disc, Emily Brontë, McNally plays Brontë’s original piano at The Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorks where she grew up.
Emily Brontë is arguably McNally’s finest thirty three minutes and also the perfect, simple showcase for Rachel and Becky’s vocals. There are ten songs here – all poems by Emily Brontë put to music by McNally as part of a commission by the Brontë Society to mark Brontë’s 200th birthday. It’s sublime music, wonderfully atmospheric, delicate and stately. Just McNally on a piano, circa 1810-1815, with all its slight imperfections, and the heart-rending voices of the two Unthanks sisters. ‘Lines’, which gives its title to this trilogy of records, is particularly memorable, with a beautiful lilting melody and words that express Brontë’s views on death. The fact that she wrote this poem as a teenager is cheerless enough, but when you consider that she spent much of her early life living opposite a cemetery and that her family were constantly beset by ill-health and untimely death, it’s no wonder that her outlook on life was somewhat tainted — albeit with a romantic flourish. Attention to detail and authenticity also distinguish this record, as evidenced by the recording process (and I quote from the press release) :
With the Brontë Parsonage now a working museum of course, the writing and recording had to take place after nightfall. McNally wrote the music for the whole record in his first evening at Emily’s piano, before spending the rest of his residency working on the songs by day on a beautiful German upright at his lodgings in nearby Ponden Hall – another house associated with the Brontës. McNally would then take his work-in progress into the Parsonage to road test them on Emily’s piano in the evenings, before weeks later, returning with Rachel and Becky Unthank to record the songs, using Brontë’s piano, again into the night.
Don’t be put off by the somewhat subdued and introspective tone of these records. There is much beauty and peaceful contemplation in both the words and music and a resigned grace to the overall feel of the set.
If The Unthanks’ music is uncharted territory for you I would recommend starting with something a little more accessible – the Here’s The Tender Coming album for instance; but for us devotees, this handsome collection adds another chapter to an already unprecedented body of work.
As a footnote I should add that The Unthanks as an unaccompanied vocal trio of Rachel, Becky and Niopha Keegan are embarking on a spring tour with new material and arrangements. Their story continues to unfold.
‘Lines’ is out now and available here as sets or separates across vinyl, CD and digital.