Music: Last by The Unthanks *****
Published 11/03/2011 | 05:00
The Unthanks had been toiling in the margins for a couple of years before they received a nomination for the 2008 Mercury Music Prize for their second album. The Bairns was easily the most obscure album up for the gong, but it got people talking about Rachel Unthank and the Winterset -- as they were then called.
Yet, there was something inevitable about the snide chatter that the album was the Mercury's token folk record that year. Such cynicism abated quickly for those who took the time to actually listen to it. Few could have been left unsmitten by its understated beauty and exquisite musicianship, although its chances of winning were slim when pitted against Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid and Radiohead's In Rainbows.
Now, with this, their fourth album, The Unthanks set the bar even higher. For folk aficionados, especially those with an appreciation for its traditional English strain, it's essential. But you don't need an appreciation of the finer points of the genre to grasp just how special this record is.
As before, much of the magic is derived from the singular vocals of the Unthank sisters -- Rachel and Becky. There's something wonderfully raw and innocent about the siblings' heavily accented voices (Gan to the Kye; My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up), and Rachel's delivery, in particular, is capable of rousing even the most jaded listener.
The five-piece are equally adept at re-interpreting ancient standards (Queen of Hearts) or writing songs with contemporary resonance (the spellbinding seven-minute title track). The lugubrious latter is especially beguiling, capturing as it does the profound sense of isolation many contemporary urban dwellers can feel.
Last includes a wider sweep of instruments than before, including a string section, but there's never a sense of a band struggling to keep it all together. The credit for that must go to Adrian McNally, Rachel's husband, whose judicious ear is best heard on the lovely Give Away Your Heart.
Factor in a fine cover of Tom Waits's No One Knows I'm Gone and a stunning version of King Crimson's Starless, and you've got a collection to treasure.
Meanwhile, Rachel Unthank has been keen to stress that the album title is not a suggestion that this will be the group's final record. One can only imagine what this masterful band have yet to offer.
Burn it Last; Gan to the Kye; Starless
Day & Night