Each time I listen to the music of The Unthanks, there are these certain feelings, these innate impressions that grasp hold of my imagination and never let it go. My mind’s eye quickly and easily conjures up images of a bleak, grey moor – the most British of all possible pastoral pictures – and there is this stark, severe woman staring resolutely across the horizon. Her face is marked with pain, but her eyes and overall visage radiates strength in the face of her trials and tribulations, whether past, present, or future. And I realize that this is actually a rather crude cliché borne of prolonged exposure to the moods of Austen, Wharton, the Brontes, and Morrissey, but it’s the bloody truth, and I welcome the arrival of such visions.
On the group’s fourth record, Last, Rachel and Becky Unthank cobbled together a beautiful batch of sad songs that could be described as classic “sad bastard” material by only the cheapest of critics. Yes, there is something inherently miserable and desolate about these tales of unrelenting woe, but such themes have been the stock-and-trade of folk musicians for centuries (not to mention pop songs for the last 60 years). The overarching atmosphere inculcated by these ten songs (eleven, if you could the album-ending reprise of the title track) is equal parts elegiac, mournful, and haunting, but these tunes also capture and hold my attention with ease.
As on the group’s lovely Here’s The Tender Coming in 2009, these arrangements are simply gorgeous, as they project a majestic orchestral feel over humble folk roots. The two sisters allow their vocals to carry the sonic weight, but do so with a resplendent grace and dexterity – Rachel’s is warm and dusky, while Becky’s is lilting and ethereal without being airy. The bulk of the songs are powered by the piano work of Adrian McNally (the band’s manager, Rachel’s husband, and composer of “Last,” my favorite song on the album), though he knows when to step back and provide ample room for the percussion, horn, and string sections to work their respective magic.
As is the group’s wont, the bulk of this material consists of various English folk tales and ballads that the sisters have re-invented and re-interpreted. This go-around, the band chose to bring render minimalist-folks covers of “No One Knows I’m Gone” from Tom Waits and “Starless” by King Crimson. But to my ears, the standout tracks of this rich, evocative record are “The Gallowgate Lad,” “Close The Coalhouse Door,” and the aforementioned title track (with reprise). It’s difficult to stave off dreams of sitting around a warm fire in a cold house listening to a wizened elder, be it spinster aunt or creepy great-grandfather – regale anyone within earshot with the “old tales.”
If this were a release from an American artist, I’d toss around modifiers like “Southern gothic” or “chamber folk,” as well as comparisons to Lewis & Clarke, O’Death, listen!listen!, or Joanna Newsom’s 2010 masterpiece, Have One On Me. Instead, Last hails from the rural county of Northumberland in England, far from gritty urban centers like London or Manchester, so I feel compelled to use tired metaphors like that of the strong, lonely woman staring across the foggy, cloudy countryside I mentioned earlier. Whatever my personal failings in attempting to describe this tremendous record, The Unthanks have crafted something that might be initially difficult to absorb at first, but if you’re at all interested in unparalleled artistry and musicians dedicated to their craft, Last is most assuredly worth the investment of your time. Both your imagination and your heart will thank me.