Rachel Unthank and the Winterset

Feature | The Bairns Album Launch, Cambridge | Written by Allan Wilkinson

There is something otherworldly about Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, something I just can’t seem to put my finger on. I don’t know exactly why I get this all too familiar shiver skidaddling purposefully down my spine each time I hear those delicious voices, but I’ll attempt some feeble analysis on this ponderous question right now, whilst I reflect on the band’s second album, and their prestigious launch at the 2007 Cambridge Folk Festival. The material they choose has a lot to do with it for sure, but there’s more to it than that. Belinda O’Hooley’s piano arrangements provide a rich canvas to set the scene, complete with intricate sketches which serve as an outline to guide the vivid colours that are to follow. Setting up such a basis for a work in progress is no mean feat by any standards and Belinda is triumphant in her endeavours here. In those irritating ‘meme’ surveys that question the things we should like to do before we die, that are frequently topped with ‘swim with dolphins’ incidentally, provides me with an opportunity to confess that ‘arrange a tune like Belinda O’Hooley’ is a much more preferred goal. But since this ain’t going to happen, pass me my snorkel and flippers and let’s get on down to Florida Keys. If it’s with Belinda that we entrust the canvas, it is with the Unthank siblings that we entrust the palette. The polish that normally marks a good voice is thankfully absent in the singing of Rachel and Becky. Polish is effortlessly replaced by sheer human emotion. My fear in life is that these two women will wake up one morning and have the ability to sing in perfect pitch, delivering arias and airs of exquisite clarity, which would at that precise moment, erase all the magic for me and my world would be dull once again. The occasional wobbles and quavers are what is essential about these beautiful voices, and are the single reason I keep returning for more. Those voices remind me that great music is a very human endeavour, and human frailty is for me what separates the dull from the exciting. The grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall in Cambridge was as good a place as any to launch the new collection of songs, although I’d been prepared for some of the songs by attending one or two gigs leading up to the launch. The very presence of the Winterset on any stage lends itself to this ‘otherworldly’ quality I speak of. There’s more than a slight bit of the Cottingley Fairies about these two sisters that is difficult to shake off. Perhaps dipping ones toes tentatively within the parameters of their enchanting circle might have given me clues to who exactly these darlings are, but the enigma is still there, even after several encounters. I’ve decided that I quite like this enigma and therefore further sycophantic grovelling may no longer be on the cards, lest I find out that it really isn’t magic, but cunning slight of hand. Once your eyes become accustomed to the youthful presence on stage, you tend to let your ears take it from there. Much of the performance relies heavily on cleverly unifying the overall sound, and may I add, with not a guitar in sight. The unique sound of the Winterset is most definitely piano driven, embellished with a violin that sounds like a violin, an occasional cello courtesy of Unthank R, a bit of percussive high-heeled footwork, courtesy of Unthank’s R & B and most importantly four sublime voices. On stage, the Winterset are a proven entity, no question about it. On record, the Winterset have a fifth member, producer Adrian McNally. The moment you hit the play button for the start of The Bairns, you are reminded of who you are listening to, by the familiar piano motif that kicks off their debut album. In this case Cyril Tawney’s “On a Monday Morning” is replaced by “Felton Lonnin”, an atmospheric reading of an old traditional Northumberland folk song. Rachel’s rich vernacular is ever present in all the songs she sings, which is one of the delights of any of the recorded or live songs I have heard her sing. If you put Rachel Unthank under a black sheet and line her up against a million other hobbits, and ask each of them to say ‘beguiled’, I’d pick her out immediately. We are reminded so often in musical families of sibling harmonies, that is, voices so similar through genetic connection that harmony singing is as easy as making toast. The delightful thing about Rachel and Becky is that their voices are light years apart, polarised in almost every way, but have this extraordinary connection that makes them inseparable. If Rachel’s is a voice of the daytime, then Becky’s is a voice of the night. On the debut album Becky chose a Nick Drake song to breath new life into, a choice that quite possibly is the reason I became a convert to the world of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset in the first place. It could have all gone horribly wrong had the arrangement been a direct attempt at copying Nick Drake’s “Riverman”, but of course it was anything but. It was re-assessed, re-addressed and re-worked to enable it to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of early Seventies bed-sit folk pop and be transformed into something quite astonishingly new. Once again on The Bairns, Becky chooses wisely and her rendering of Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song” is simply magnificent, the high point of both album and album launch. Belinda plays sensitively yet with an assurance unequalled in my opinion on any previous song. Robert Wyatt’s strange lyrics are delivered by a voice that was probably destined to sing it, and if the recording reaches the great bearded one, I’m sure he would approve whole heartedly, but who knows? Becky might even consider an entire albums-worth of Wyatt covers; “God’s Song” perhaps? “Gharbzadigi” maybe? “Alifib”? Oh I can hear it now… “not nit not nit no not, nit nit folly bololy, burlybunch, the water mole, hellyplop and fingerhole, not a wossit bundy, see for jangle and bojangle, trip trip, pip pippy pippy pip pip landerim, Alifi my larder…” Oh Becky, bring it on! Niopha Keegan provides delightfully underplayed accordion accompaniment, which is both an inspired piece of judgement and arrangement. The opus of triads that bring the performance to a close may quite possibly become known as the Winterset’s defining moment. Just because we identify a potential classic on the bands’ second recorded outing, we must not overlook some of the other goodies on the album at any cost. “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk” is a belter of a song, which brings out the raucousness of the feisty siblings. You can’t help but wonder whether the demon alcohol wasn’t entirely banished from the studio during the session. Belinda O’Hooley’s “Blackbird” is the song on the album that resonates around my head more than any other, a melody that any self respecting tunesmith would be proud of, and with what is fast becoming a trademark Becky vocal performance. “Whitethorn” is a heartbreaking song of loss. Songs of such raw emotive power would normally come with obligatory shrink-wrapped razor blade attached to the CD sleeve, but in the case of Belinda’s passionate writing, Rachel’s expressive conveyance of emotion and Niopha’s weeping violin, we become not revellers at the wake, nor solemn mourners at the funeral, but bystanders witnessing the grief. Closing the Cambridge main stage set and almost concluding a beautiful second album, “Farewell Regality” serves as a well chosen anthem to send us on our way. As the closing song to the bands’ third and final appearance at this year’s Cambridge Festival, it was enough to make me retire to the bar afterwards. Unfortunately, even Nanci Griffith provided nothing that could improve on what I had witnessed mid evening on the Radio 2 stage. The song, according to Rachel, “makes us tingle”. Well it makes me, and no doubt anyone who comes into contact with it, tingle too.