[27 May 2010]
Listening to the Unthanks sing the story of a girl working in the coal mines, based on the testimony of Patience Kershaw to a governmental enquiry back in 1842, during a week when 29 miners died in a work related accident in West Virginia shows the timelessness of folk music. While this tune was penned by Frank Higgins in 1969 and was written about a period more than 100 years before, the human cost of extracting coal remains a constant.
So is the splendor of hearing two sisters singing in together in harmony. The combination of Becky and Rachel Unthank’s voices forms a strange and peculiar union. They don’t make a lovely sound by conventional standards. There is something too odd about their timbre and inflections. But family bands have always an aural chemistry that seems especially suited to acoustic music. The Unthanks benefit from this. It gives their music the patina of authenticity and a sense of roots, even when they are singing tunes written by and for others.
This can be heard in the title song from the English band’s new album, Here’s the Tender Coming. The traditional song has nothing to do with soft emotions, but refers to the boat that came to press young men into service as soldiers. While many of us live in a different age of all volunteer military forces, the fact of war and its effect on the families of those who fight it still exists. “If they take thee Geordie, who’s to win our bread / Me and little Jackie, better off be dead” the sisters passionately sing. The song resonates relevantly today, again showing how little times have changed for those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
The Unthanks are more than the two sisters, although some of the best moments—such as the a capella introduction of “Because He Was a Bonny Lad”—just features the duo. The sisters are ably accompanied by a band of acoustic players that includes: Adrian McNally on pianos, drums, and tuned percussion; Chris Price on guitar, bass, ukelele, and dulcitone; Neil Harland on double bass; Julian Sutton on melodeon; Jo Silverston on cello; Niopha Keegan on violin, mandolin, and accordion; and Graham Hardy, Simon Tarrant and Chris Hibbard on brass instruments. The sister’s voice are always in the forefront of the nine-piece band, which serves to highlight the singing by adding a gentle accompaniment. The use of bass and drums is especially noteworthy, as it gives the album a full sound that was missing from The Unthanks’ earlier work.
This is especially true on the album’s centerpiece, the tragic traditional love song “Annachie Gordon”, that concerns a lass who would rather die for true love than marry for riches. The eight plus minute ballad goes through a series of sonic permutations as the various states of heart and mind are presented.
Not every song here is gloomy, although the bulk of them are. There are two short (less than a minute interludes) “Where Yer Bin Dick” and “Not Much Luck in Our House” that add a touch of humor to the proceedings. Yet even the sad songs have something effusive about them. They convey a vulnerable sensitivity, like that of the blues, which suggests even feeling bad beats feeling nothing at all.
The Unthanks prove that traditional acoustic folk music is alive and well today. The genre has gone in and out of popularity during the past 100 years, but as long as acts as talented as the Unthanks put out albums as good as this one, folk will continue to inspire, grow, and thrive.