March 25, 2010

The Unthanks – Here’s The Tender Coming

The Unthanks
Here’s The Tender Coming
Rough Trade; 2010

Folk musicians tend to fall into two distinct camps when recording their songs: make things as simple as possible (usually a mere guitar and voice) or ramp up the amount of additional instruments to ponderous levels. With the former setup, it’s because the artist wants to imitate the format in which the songs were originally composed and/or to make the music much easier to take out onto the road. With the latter, it’s because the artist (or producer) is eager to mirror the volume of rock music and believes that there is a direct relationship between intensity and the number of participants playing on the record. Then again, if you’re Ryan Adams, you just make two different ten-song albums in the same year and hope that one of them is worth a damn.

In the case of Rachel and Becky Unthank, we have a duo that is able to play up the traditional troubadour underpinnings of its music, while writing beautifully reserved accompaniment that knows its place. On Here’s The Tender Coming, these two sisters from North East England pen a stirring twelve-song album that is buoyed by classic folk motifs and a deft combination of light strings, horns, tenderly plucked guitar chords, and piano lines that are alternately feathery and strong. Through it all, the stunning vocals are what keep my attention and encouraging me to focus on what the women are singing just so that I can better get inside the harmonies.

‘Tis true: the minimalist arrangements are designed to showcase the vocal interplay on display, creating an attractive resonance and heft to the tunes, without being an overeager assault on your senses. Sure, the amount of verbiage being employed here to recount moving stories, tales, and odes might feel a bit ponderous at times, but there’s something very ancient at work here. The entire effect is one akin to a village gathered around the fire at a celebration to hear a grizzled bard tell the old tales – it is the strength of the voices that compels my concentration. Then again, maybe I’ve read too many tales about Merlin in Arthurian legend, but it’s difficult to hear cuts like “Sad February,” “Annachie Gordon,” “Lucky Gilchriest,” and “The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw” without imagining The Unthanks also possessing the same ability to captivate people in the most intimate of environments with their epic, tough, hard-bitten morality tales.

With a resounding beginning that then nestles into a hopeful melancholy, Here’s The Tender Coming calls us into springtime, but reminds us to not forget the lessons of winter. There is grey, blue, and green aplenty here: some tracks should be enjoyed inside, bundled up against the cold rain, while others are best heard when basking in the sunshine. This is a lush, gorgeous record that rejects the need for bombast of the Adams and Oberst variety, and it is certainly a few steps ahead and beyond of all of those clichéd caterwauling cats, wailing away on their poor, raggedy acoustic guitars at open-mic nights all around the world.

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