I'd heard the name Unthank a few times in the past few months, but apart from noting its strangeness, it had passed me by. I read about many obscure folk acts but the chance of me actually hearing them is so small that I frequently don't pay attention. My interest was definitely piqued when I read that they had recorded a cover of King Crimson's "Starless" (this seems to be the flavour of the month). I wondered how they would handle - if at all - the 13/8 instrumental portion, let alone the freak out section later on.
The song is currently available on YouTube; one listen was enough to convince me that I was listening to something valuable.
With thanks to sources who shall remain anonymous, I was able to listen (and listen and listen) to an earlier record of theirs, 'The Bairns' (don't pay the amazon.com price - British Amazon have it for four and a half pounds, and I'm ordering my own copy tomorrow). I've barely listened to anything else since becoming acquainted with this disc a week ago. I can understand why the Unthanks can polarise people: some of the songs are somewhat hard to take, with sparse accompaniments and harmonies in parallel fifths ('I wish' is particularly harrowing with the wife shouting from the bedroom, "turn that noise off!"). But to me, it's captivating!
This morning I was looking for some background information on Rachel and Becky Unthank, when I stumbled on this interview with Adrian McNally, who was their manager and is now their pianist and Rachel's husband. There's a paragraph which I want to quote here:
The vision I had of the band, from before we even started working together, was such a eureka moment, that every decision and direction since has been easy. All we have to do is look at the blueprint and ask if it fits. That pivotal, central idea was to afford Rachel and Becky a soundscape that they could sing completely independently of. I wanted them to be able to sing just as they would unaccompanied, as traditional singers do, without having to worry about staying in time with other players. Rather than seeing the music as accompaniment, I wanted to create a reflective, musical alter-discourse to their songs. Two narratives running side by side. Eerily detached accompaniments, at once abstract and unobtrusive. The result is hopefully something that sounds at once traditional and progressive, honest and abstract, simple and complex.
It's good to know that someone has a vision of the band, although not always is that vision realised. I am very happy to know that they have indeed realised and achieved this vision, although I should point out that not all of the songs have a reflective, musical alter-discourse. Some of them are quite traditional (couldn't avoid that pun!) in their use of vocal and musical harmony, but then again, some of the songs come from somewhere else.
Like probably everyone else, my first reaction to 'The Bairns' was 'what on earth is this music? What are these voices?', although I was a convert by the end of the disc. My reaction reminds me of the first time that I listened to Eliza Carthy's "Red Rice"; that took a while to assimilate but the effort was worth it. I have no doubt that the instrumentation - or lack of it - has no small part to play. Jazzy piano, violin, cello (and on 'Starless', trumpet) playing chamber arrangements are the sort of thing which I prefer to guitar, bass and drums.