To listen to Cruel Sister is to remind yourself of what folk music really is: people with appreciation for tradition, their own ideas, the talent to combine them, the sensitivity to do it well and the enthusiasm to love doing it. Rachel and Becky Unthank have all this, and the spread of songs on here show that clearly. Whether it's familiar songs such as the title track (albeit in an interpretation unfamiliar to me), local North-Eastern songs like Rap Her To Bank or the superb acappella of The Fair Flower Of Northumberland, or more recent pieces like River Man, the skill is almost as apparent to the listener as the amount of fun they're clearly having.
Comparisons with June Tabor have been made by some reviewers, and while I'm not sure the Unthanks are quite in that league yet, at this rate they will. They do already share with Tabor that amazing ability to absorb and amplify the innate emotional quality of the songs they sing. Rachel especially has a most expressive voice. Accompanists Brenda O'Hooley and Jackie Oates, completing The Winterset, mark another similarity to June Tabor's music in their quiet, almost minimalist power, elegant simplicity and gravity, and are fantastically apt for the Unthank sisters' voices.
In annual visits to Hexham Gathering folk festival I've seen the Unthanks go from (undeservedly) little-regarded also-ran performers to headliners. I'm so glad they've managed to make this mark on the wider world at last. It's just a shame this CD doesn't have any video footage of their superb clogging as a hidden extra; perhaps for the next album?