on 13 March 2011
This is one of those albums that has to be listened to a few times to be fully appreciated.
Terrific vocals from the two ladies, sophisticated arrangements and superb musicianship all come together to create a haunting - if at times bleak - sound scape.
It's hard to single out individual tracks, as this work needs to listened to as a whole, but their cover of Tom Waits' No One Knows I'm Gone is stunning as is Starless, a King Crimson song I have not previously heard. Listen out for the trumpet on this track. Beautiful. The centrepiece and one of the highlights of the album has to be the title track, Last, almost at times Pink Floyd-esque in it's arrangement.
I love the way they sing in their native Northumbrian accent, it adds to the overall haunting quality of the album.
Superb, but give it time to grow on you. It will.
Let's hope that this album brings them the massive crossover success they deserve.
Quite how the Unthanks have managed it is anyone's guess but with their fourth and latest album "Last" they have recorded a work of stark beauty and huge maturity which tops all their previous work. The latter statement is not made lightly since many will argue that the "The Bairns" is a beautifully bleak treat and cannot be surpassed, while their last album "Here's the tender coming" saw the band produce a record which was so good it was almost obscene. Their unsentimental and honest takes on a range of traditional and new material has generated huge excitement around British folk and their crossover appeal is potentially massive with their take on traditional songs like "Annachie Gordon" or Ewan MacColl's "Nobody knew she was there" spine tingling in their mix of gritty Northumberland vocal phrasing and neo classical arrangements.
At the heart of the Unthanks vision is an ability to take just about any song and infuse it with either a deep folk melancholy or alternatively give it a new sheen, which essentially reinvents the original concept. There is neither any jumping on the nu-folk bandwagon for these musicians, indeed the word "uncompromising" often creeps into parlance when discussing the band, although perish the thought if that suggests a lack of accessibility or warmth. Far from it, as the huskiness in the voices of Rachel and Becky are beguiling and completely affecting and with their superb band they have produced in "Last" a reflective and world beating set of songs that draws you like a moth to a flame. The cover versions here include a breathy and gorgeous take on the great Tom Waits' "No One Knows I'm Gone", and also a little known song (which your reviewer had no familiarity) from north east singer Jon Redfern and his achingly sad lament on the Iraq war, "Give Away Your Heart". The Unthanks populate this with a late autumnal atmosphere drawn from the snowed-under Northumberland farmhouse where the album was recorded particularly on the refrain of "disappointment is everywhere" and the great piano accompaniment from Adrian McNally.
Perhaps the most surprising version on here is a cover of King Crimson's "Starless" from their 1974 album "Red" which is one of their greatest tracks but transformed on here from a song which in the primary version ends with a blistering sax jazz rock workout into in a slow ballad now based around trumpet and strings and half its original size. Rachel and Becky remain true to Robert Fripp's latent melody but infuse it with a vocal depth, which is astonishing. It works wonderfully but as always at the heart of the Unthanks work is their loyalty and commitment to the folk tradition and "Last" is jam packed with songs such as the opener "Gan To The Kye" and "The Gallowgate lad" both great versions of the 19th century rural ballads full of primal authenticity and pronounced dialect. In an album of highlights there are two songs, which especially grab attention at this early stage. The first is the already mentioned "No one knows when I'm gone" the second is the chilling and mournful version of Alex Glasgow's "Close The Coalhouse Door" which cites the terrible memory of the Aberfan disaster of 1966 which still scars the Welsh Valleys.
Overall Adrian McNally's is becoming a fine songwriter and the title track and its later shorter reprise which concludes the album reminds us that the Unthanks are more than just about the singers but the wider band. This album is an altogether darker affair than "Tender" and some may bemoan the Unthanks own admission of producing songs for "miserable buggers". They would be foolish in the extreme if that impression was all they gained from an album of such desolate raw beauty which proves that the Unthanks musical journey is one of the most interesting and imaginative in British music.
on 14 March 2011
Sad, sorrowful, mournful, bleak and almost indescribably beautiful, this is a sepia-toned and autumnal body of work perhaps better suited to an October release than being unleashed just as the days are getting noticeably longer and warmer, but no matter - it's an album for all seasons.
Unlike its notable predecessor "Here's The Tender Coming", there's no up-tempo romp here to mitigate the pervading sense of gloom, but on reflection that kind of interruption would probably have been inappropriate, and might simply have broken the spell.
Without dismissing in any way some very fine original songwriting and arrangements, it is the two surprising cover choices that threaten to steal the show. The emotionally-charged treatment of Tom Waits' "No One Knows I've Gone" is genuinely jaw-dropping; the shortest track on the record, it's a real "hairs on the back of your neck" moment. Likewise, a stunning arrangement of King Crimson's prog-rock classic "Starless" (minus the prog) is destined to live long in the memory. A special record.
on 5 August 2011
In create something special, you have to do something different. The Unthanks have already gained the plaudits and praise of the folk cognescenti with their previous outtings. 'Last' could have been, and no one would have blamed them for producing, a similar album to Bairns. But with the maturity and ability of the band now, we have been treated to a collection of tunes that hold together perfectly - this is truly an 'album', designed to be listened to from first to last in one sitting. It's like looking through a collection of sepia-tinted photographs, every turn of the page revealing a little more heart-break and history. That's not to say it's a concept album - don't get carried away by the inclusion of a King Crimson song!
Melancolic but never morose, nostalgic without being twee and bare but not stark, Rachel and Becky's voice have been treated to the most sympathetic production and arrangement. It's actually the non-traditional songs that stand above and act as furlong-posts as you listen. Starless is a wonderful melody which despite getting the attention from reviewers would sound great no matter who covered it but it's the eponymous track that picks you up and sweeps you away into the sensory land of the Unthanks. The traditional instrumentation and voices sits so perfectly with the non-traditional lyrics and arrangement - you almost feel that the band have created a whole new genre of popular music - this is the 'something different' they have done to make 'Last' so special. And it is to be found in every song. King Crimson cover or not, this music IS progressive.
The next album will be so difficult for The Unthanks - surely they must pick some less melancolic material but how will they continue to approach it with the sensitivity and freshness that we find here.
on 21 July 2011
Lying in bed listening to Radio 3's Late Junction, I heard Queen of Hearts by The Unthanks and was immediately reduced to tears.I had never heard folk music like this before and, after consulting the Amazon reviews, bought 'The Unthanks' and 'Heres The Tender Coming' (On the latter CD 'Nobody knew she was there' had a similar effect on me) This beautiful, haunting music and soft, slow, lilting, mournful singing with its underlying sadness - strikes straight at the heart. I do agree with some reviwers that too much 'orchestra' overpowers the simplicity and purity of the singing, but the music still remains - to me anyway - quite unique. I will certainly be giving CD's of 'Heres The Tender Coming' as presents to friends. This deep and emotional music deserves a wider audience.
on 18 April 2011
it's been interesting watching the unthanks' music develop from 'cruel sister', through 'the bairns' and 'here's the tender coming', and 'last' takes their work a step further.
on the earlier albums, the band was 'rachel unthank and the winterset' and as the name suggests, rachel unthank's singing was central.
and what a voice: beautiful, unaffected, undefended.. "a direct line to something old - mysterious, blood-and-bones old" according to one bbc review, trying to describe that same extraordinary quality.
on the last two albums, the band is now 'the unthanks', and this reflects the more collaborative nature of the music. becky unthank's singing gets more prominence, as does the virtuoso playing of niopha keegan and the string section, and the arrangements of adrian mcnally, respectful of the traditional music, but drawing on influences like robert wyatt, penguin cafe orchestra, and through PCO, systems music, like the music of glass or nyman. this has kept the music fresh and unpredictable since the first album, but it's always anchored in the tradition by the strength of rachel and becky's singing.
on this album, adrian mcnally's arrangments become more prominent. some of the songs are traditional and simply beautiful -- 'gan to the kye', 'my laddie sits ower late up'; some are sad and sweet, like 'last'; and some chilling, like 'close the coalhouse door'. the band manages to seamlessly include music from unexpected sources, like tom waits' 'no-one knows i'm gone', and the thing of beauty they make of king crimson's prog rock 'starless'.
the more structured arrangements on last mean that rachel's extraordinary singing is held in check more than it is on the previous albums, and sometimes it's even a little overpowered by the strings. as mcnally says, writing about king crimson in the sleeve notes, 'if you're going to push boundaries as an artist, you're going to get it wrong some of the time'.
but overall 'last' is a moving sequence of songs, with passages of real beauty, from a band that keeps on pushing the boundaries.
on 27 June 2011
Subtle yet universal, traditional yet entirely fresh, these sisters mesmerise with their amazing womanly voices; their subtle harmonies speak to the heart through both traditional and original material. I 'discovered' the Unthanks at Christmas 2010 (BBC Four)and am rapidly catching up with their catalogue. If you like folk, traditional or world music or just are open to authentic music of any kind, and haven't heard them yet, try this, you won't regret it.
on 22 March 2011
Yes it's melancholic .... but it's all SO atmospheric and it just grows and grows.
The songs from the North of England that they excel at are interspersed with some stunning covers - the selection of the Queen of Hearts and Starless are inspired.
The arrangements on all of the tracks are excellent and none more so that on the title track and the covers.
If you bought their previous albums then you will buy this, if you are new to the Unthanks then check it out - you will not be disappointed.
All in all a stunning collection of songs that will surely enhance their reputation and broaden their audience.
on 9 July 2013
The Unthanks are not just a folk band, but what other genre can define them? On this album there are old folk songs and new songs, even a rock song, all placed together perfectly as if they couldn’t be anywhere else. Only time will tell if this is a masterpiece or just a brilliant and inventive album. The almost unremitting melancholy is so beautiful that tearing oneself away part way through the album seems at best disrespectful. It is hard not to listen to the whole album and to do nothing else. The string arrangements are clever without being intrusive and while advocates of the earlier works by the Unthanks might decry this innovation it is right that the band have moved ground and added the new sound layers. My favourite tracks are Starless (a remarkable interpretation of a King Crimson track), Last and the despairingly bleak Close the Coalhouse Door. Although the almost upbeat Canny Hobbie Elliot breaks the mood at an odd point there isn’t a weak track to be heard. This is pleasure and pain made indistinguishable.
on 25 September 2013
The Unthanks are, like of folk musicians, an acquired taste. The music tends to reflect the dark side of life on Tyneside and this coupled with both the regional accents and the local language can make them hard to listen to, but if one perseveres one can find something beautiful here. As usual the accompaniment compliments the vocals very well.
For sure the albums that follow this one, in particular the Diversions series, are better but I see that as a natural progression for the band.
Personally I'm glad that I ignored the negative reviews of this album as I would have missed out on something worth having.