Album Review | EMI /RabbleRouser | Review by Allan Wilkinson | Stars: 5/5
There exists at least one copy of The Bairns that includes all five autographs rather than the customary four. After some arm twisting at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2008, where the celebrated album was launched, I cockily insisted that the fifth member of the Winterset, Adrian McNally, put his mark right there on the sleeve, which had just been through the hands of Rachel Unthank, Becky Unthank, Niopha Keegan and Belinda O’Hooley respectively. Credit where credit’s due. I don’t suppose anyone bothered to get George Martin’s signature on Rubber Soul or Revolver, as he was probably seen as just another one of the many ‘fifth’ Beatles to come pouring out of the woodwork; whether it be to collaborate, promote or play with the Fab Four during their most creative period. I guess it really would have been slightly uncool for Martin to join the rest of the lads as a visible member of the band; what with his carefully groomed side parting and Bromley Grammar School tie, but that’s got more to do with generational aesthetics than music. Adrian McNally on the other hand, actually fits in rather well alongside his wife, his sister-in-law, his good friend Niopha Keegan and his childhood mate Chris Price, who now collectively make up The Unthanks. Testament to this notion is the promo photo that has just been released alongside the new album, which shows an entirely pleasing physically cohesive package. Rachel Unthank’s producer husband was forced to come out from behind his desk on this occasion due to the departure of Stef Connor, who has been nothing but a Godsend to the band after the sudden departure of Belinda O’Hooley eighteen months ago. After giving a considerable amount of time and energy to the band over the ensuing months, Stef has returned to her PhD studies, which she knew she would have to pick up at some point in the future. The young pianist/composer enabled the band to tour the celebrated Mercury prize nominated album, which was of course an important thing to do after such a successful release, by painstakingly learning all the songs together with their complex arrangements, as well as putting something of herself into the mix. I was fortunate to have been at Stef’s debut live appearance with the Winterset in Newcastle on a cold January evening back in 2008 after which she said to me “I hope I haven’t ruined your band”. On the contrary, Stef Connor saved the day. So now, after an eventful eighteen months, it’s onwards and upwards with a new line up, a new sound and a new fresh approach. It’s difficult not to think in these terms; that everything achieved so far by the band can be bundled and filed as, for want of a better term, Phase One. The departure of Jackie Oates and Belinda O’Hooley, and the emergence of Niopha Keegan and Stef Connor, was to all intents and purposes part of that same creative time period, resulting in two fine albums, dozens of great gigs and a steadily built reputation as a folk group of sorts, but one doing something slightly left field. Therefore with the departure of Stef, The Unthanks appear to have been forced to have a good hard look at themselves and confront some creative decision making head on. Their first potential problem was how exactly to come up with something that could feasibly follow The Bairns, with a vital ingredient missing. Changes are nothing new to this band and it goes without saying that with change comes a good deal of risk. Whether it was the right time to add two male figures to the once all-female line up remains to be seen, but judging by the musical contribution of the lads, including piano, guitar, bass, ukulele and dulcitone together with various tuned percussion, the evidence on first hearing suggests the decision was spot on. Dropping the piano motif that opens both previous albums, the band’s third offering Here’s the Tender Coming opens with the distinctive voice of an unaccompanied Becky Unthank, breathing life into an old song, “Because He Was a Bonny Lad”, which then morphs seamlessly, with a little help from Rachel and Niopha’s intuitive vocal syncopation, into a celestial chorus of vocal pyrotechnics; like a cross between the Beach Boys and the Flying Pickets, as sung by the resident choir of Durham Cathedral. Despite having a reputation for providing the world with some of the bleakest songs since the folk revival began, this opening song is probably one of the most uplifting sounds in the bands’ recorded output to date. No rest for the wickedly melancholic though as ‘bleak’ comes back almost on cue with “Sad February”, together with high heel metronome as previously heard on “Felton Lonnin” and “Sea Song”. It’s more Thomas Hardy than Leonard Cohen though, all set against a Teesside landscape, perfectly melancholic for the lachrymose subject matter, that of drowned sailors and their grieving widows. Bass and drums were previously experimented with on the Winterset’s version of the Beatles song “Sexy Sadie”, especially recorded for Mojo Magazine’s homage to the White Album and now make a return throughout this album, effectively giving the girls’ feet a break. It’s difficult to describe Becky Unthank’s distinctive voice, but it’s certainly unlike anything else you might stumble across in your record collection. During her time with this band, Becky has brought some corkers to the band’s repertoire, each with its own individual personality and character. As a song writer, the name Lal Waterson has become just about as sacrosanct as Sandy Denny’s a couple or three decades earlier and one tends to tread carefully when tackling that particular body of work. The younger Unthank sibling is fearless though, approaching Lal Waterson in exactly the same manner as she approaches Nick Drake or Robert Wyatt. She makes these songs her own and stamps an indelible mark right on the box. With a powerful string arrangement, Becky confidently strides through “At First She Starts” with her trademark breathy performance, likewise on such a mammoth ballad as “Annachie Gordon”, taking the Nic Jones version rather than Mary Black’s, and weaving through the arrangement like a bird in flight. All this is helped along by some steadily building and pulsating rhythms and like a ticking clock, life abandons our protagonists with a deafening silence. The album’s only original song, written by Adrian McNally, provides a completely new departure for the band. Set to a heavy handed piano riff and strings accompaniment, we are introduced to a new folk hero in “Lucky Gilchrist” a close friend of Rachel’s who she sadly lost last year. With a minimalist approach, Adrian McNally’s piano motif alternates between shades of Sufjan Stevens and John Carpenter horror score atmospherics. No greater eulogy in song could be paid to the dear departed than in the lyric ‘you live on in all of us’. If the opening song tips its hat to Brian Wilson then the arrangement to the Frank Higgins song “The Testimony of Patience Kershaw” surely owes a debt to “Eleanor Rigby”. With a delightful string quartet arrangement, The Unthanks deliver probably the most joyous sound on the album, yet ironically to a heartbreaking historic 1842 testimony by an illiterate 17 year-old female miner, whose story was told to a British government commission, formed to examine the conditions of women and children working in the coal mines. Rachel’s reading of this ballad is both emotionally moving and utterly believable. Returning to Sheila Stewart after the success of “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk”, Becky delivers a jaunty sing-a-long coda with “Betsy Bell”, which probably owes more to the Northern music hall tradition than to folk song. Like “Where’ve Yer Bin Dick”, which some of us had the privilege of being taught by Rachel first hand in her singing workshop at the Cambridge Folk Festival this year, the song offers some light relief to augment some of the more gloom-ridden songs on the album. Ultimately, I have to agree with Rachel though, that all in all, Here’s the Tender Coming does seem to be a ‘warmer, calmer shade of sad’ than The Bairns. And so to the title song itself. In the 1970s I heard the local singer Dave Burland sing “Here’s the Tender Coming”, which effectively changed my mind about music. Here was a Yorkshireman singing a Geordie song, in a Geordie manner and getting away with it. I had an instant affinity with that song back then, probably because I am myself of Yorkshire/Geordie parentage and I’ve always been familiar with the canny lingo. Now in the hands of Rachel Unthank, the song has come round full circle and returns home to where it belongs, right there in the Geordie tradition. Having said that, it never really left, did it?