on 17 September 2007
'A bit of melancholy is not always a bad thing,' writes Rachel Unthank in the liner notes to The Bairns, the new album from this ambitious and fascinating Northumbria/Tyneside quartet. It's a sentiment followed consistently through this, their latest collection of traditional songs, covers, and self-penned compositions.
Dealing with everything from lost love, desertion, infant mortality, domestic abuse, vanishing innocence and the sorrow suffered by those who stand and wait, this is a dark and very tough series of songs. But it is also bitingly beautiful, and filled with the sort of delicate glory that reminds you of walking through a dense, creaking forest in winter, only to occasionally see the sun glinting here and there through the branches.
The soundscape is, on first listening, bleak and unflinching; piano notes are picked out with crystalline precision, dying as soon as they're struck; strings scratch and moan; the voices loom and fade with each telling phrase, but gradually, as you listen again and again, a picture grows around each song. Colour fills in. The centre holds, and the songs sketch themselves indelibly. Peppered throughout the album are verses lifted from the traditional Minstrelsy, played, mostly, straight and with the honesty that such well-surviving music demands, but it is surrounded by veerings off into something wholly different and, yes, dammit, unique. Here and there are totally unexpected harmonies, blasts of pop piano and John Barry strings, great washes of layered vocals, birdsong and deep-sea laments. It is an avalanche of unexpected sound, a truly mesmerising mix, rooted in the traditional, but leading it off hither and thither into the dark.
And, oh my, what darkness.
Rachel and her sister, Becky, launch themselves fearlessly into these songs. Singing with an eyes-wide-open soulfulness, they tackle the harshest parts of ordinary lives, in an extraordinary way. As you might expect, even if you're not a fan of traditional music, their voices are flawless and pure. Not of the shatter-if-you-gave-it-a-hard-stare quality that some of the more elfin, floaty dress and pixie singers might exhibit, but flawless nevertheless. These girls like to mix it up.
Never is this more in evidence than on the stunning Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk, an exhausting, tingles-down-the-spine description of abuse. Becky, with a breathy, bluesy, keening paints a gruesome image:
"Dear friends I have a sad story,
A very sad story to tell.
I married a man for his money,
And he's worse than the Devil himself."
There's vulnerability, defiance and the maddening circularity of abuse fitted into one brief, gorgeous, horrifying plea. On the turning of a piano phrase (Belinda O'Hooley's keyboard features on almost every song, flitting from classical to rock, from the Music Hall to Gershwin, and is a huge joy), Rachel takes over and stands up to the bully, the beat thundering along, harmonies crackling and bouncing all over the place, but you know where it'll end as the tempo drops and the blues come back right at the death.
Another huge highlight is Belinda's self-penned pop song, the poetic lilting, Blackbird, which explores why we sing and why we enjoy music so much. Across a gorgeous melody, and the expected beautiful vocals, the fourth member of the group, Niopha Keegan, weaves a spell-binding thread from her fiddle, like the best dawn chorus you ever heard.
Bu the central song, for me is Sea Song, a cover of the great Robert Wyatt tune. Becky, again, a young Northern lass with a voice that could stop you in your tracks, breathes dark shadowy life into this startling, elegiac anthem to the complexity of human relationships:
"Am I yours? Are you mine to play with?
But joking apart, when you're drunk you're terrific,
When you're drunk I like you mostly late at night.
You're quite alright.
But I can't understand the different you in the morning."
When she hits you with that classic line:
"Your madness fits in nicely with my own, with my own
Your lunacy fits neatly with my own"
she's got you, you're taken in. This is wonderful, beautiful stuff, music that'll keep you company in your deepest reflective moments. I can't recommend it enough. Plus, it's now overtaken Billy Bragg's Tank Park Salute, in having a track that I can't get through without blubbing, the valedictory Fareweel Regality. I'm trying it now, and I'm choked. Brilliant, just brilliant. Never mind wherever call the Fates, The Bairns is, thus far, my album of 2007.