Recently I watched Barbara Dickson perform as part of the Radio2 Folk Awards. As she sang the song My Donald three things occurred to me. Firstly, just what a great song it is. Secondly, I hadn't realised how good a singer she was. Having grown up watching her fill guest slots on The Two Ronnies, singing 'January February', I had not been given cause to think of her as having a particularly wonderful voice. I don't mind admitting I may have been wrong, I just hadn't heard her sing the right material. Lastly, and most telling, I was reminded of just what a fantastic version it was on Rachel Unthank & The Winterset's Mercury nominated 2007 album 'The Bairns'. Although Ms Dickson gave it her all, and clearly gave a passionate performance, she could not come close to touching The Unthanks definitive rendition.
Four years on from the bands nod from the judges, the line up has changed slightly, the lengthy band name has been shortened, they've released an accomplished follow up with 2009's 'Here's The Tender Coming' and Rachel's expecting a bairn of her own. Aside from that 2011 sees the Unthanks in ever more confident mood. All the reasons why they were hoisted from relative obscurity and thrust into the peripheral limelight are still evident in abundance. So why should their versions of working class, traditional or stylised songs be the ones that strike a chord when a lot of them have been around for a wee while?
The tie that binds all of the Unthanks work is refreshingly simple. The Northumbrian vocals are both beguilingly beautiful and symbiotically harmonious whilst the arrangements are stunningly scored and each could easily stand being heard in isolation. They have quality, character and presence whilst their attention to detail sets them still further apart. The piano sequence towards the end of the Unthanks My Donald is truly brilliant. Last (Thankfully not their last) has brilliance in abundance. Their skills have not diminished with time. There is no shortage of inventive composition, formidable performances or creativity.
The mix of old, new, borrowed and blue may not be as 'fresh' as some detractors may like but it remains a winning formula. The Unthanks are aware of certain critical avenues that see reinterpretation as negativity. However Rachel's husband, producer, writer and soon to be Dad, Adrian, sees it like this..."I think Dick Gaughan once said that every song needs a thousand singers, and if JosÃ© GonzÃ¡lez can make a Kylie song sound profound, anything is possible! Songwriters are often the last person to realise what they've written or what it could mean. Actors don't get criticised for not writing their own films." On Last The Unthanks also tackle difficult territory with a Tom Waits cover, 'No One Knows I'm Gone', as well as King Crimson's 'Starless' and Jon Redfern's 'Give Away Your Heart'.
The title track may be self penned, and is in itself a fabulous song, but it is still in the writing and vocalising of others that The Unthanks find their forte. The albums two best tracks are awash with fantastic characters so convincingly portrayed and presented that you can't help but to become immersed in thier stoies. After the opener 'Gan To The Kye' you are treated to a stunning track 'The Gallowgate Lad' (If ever someone at The Brits decides to do a category for Best Song Not Entirely In The English Language then this may just qualify!)
Ye'll knaw him, Joe issn't he hansum?
As clivor a lad as ye'll see,
He wes striker at Stivvisin's Factry,
But lately he's been on the spree;
An' he got bag'd for gawn on the fuddle
An' the jewl mun heh fairly gyen mad
When he went an' join'd the Millsha,
Maw gud-luckin' Gallowgate Lad!
Songs of tremendous warmth, depth, heartache and misery are all to be found as you journey through the album. 'Queen Of Hearts', a possible single, and 'My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up' show just how consistently good the Unthanks output continues to be. The standout track however is saved almost until the very end. In 'Close The Coalhouse Door' The Unthanks have excelled themselves. The song choice is perfect for them. Originally written by Alex Glasgow (Himself a pitman's son from Gateshead) for a musical play, 'Close The Coal House Door' is an epic tale of great sadness and despair. The gentle introduction of delicate violin and piano masks the tragedy about to unfold. Rachel and Becky's voices combine so tenderly as the piano begins to loop over and over as muted horns underpin the darkness...."Close the coalhouse door lad, there's bones inside; Mangled splintered piles of bones. Buried beneath a mile of stone, not a soul to hear a groan."
In Last The Unthanks have produced a wonderful album The vocals are fantastic, the arrangements are superb and some of the instrumental performances, especially Niopha Keegan's violin, are tremendous. The songs may evoke some pithy working class period drama full of soot, scullery maids, class division, hard work and hardship but they are real, honest and well told stories being expertly performed. Last, definitely not least.