THE UNTHANKS – Here’s The Tender Coming (Rabble Rouser)

My discovery of The Unthanks followed rather a strange path. A simple mention in a feature in the NME on what band members are listening to steered me to the internet where I found a clip of them performing on ‘Later With Jools Holland’. From there it led to another clip which included the sisters clog dancing, and from that point on I was hooked. I hunted out the CD and now love this idiosyncratic folk group from the North of England. Led by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, the band deliver a mixture of trad./anon. folk songs, covers of classic artists like Anne Briggs and Ewan McColl, and some of their own tunes. The traditional ‘Because He Was A Bonny Lad’ introduces us to the vocal harmonies of the two girls, starting off in a ‘hey nonny no’ folk style, before slowing right down for an atmospheric coda. ‘Sad February’ is a beautiful ballad from local folk-singer Graeme Miles, with the band fully doing it justice with a respectful reading of the song complemented by some lovely brass at the end. ‘Annachie Gordon’ is another traditional song, emphasising the way that the girls don’t try to hide their local accents while singing, making their vocals all the more charming and real. ‘Lucky Gilchrist’ is written by keyboardist Adrian McNally as a celebration of the life of a departed friend of the band, and is the song that featured the clog dancing (although not on this studio version). It also has an intensely catchy tune and some emotive lyrics, so a winner all round. ‘The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw’ is based on the real spoken testimony of Patience Kershaw to the Royal Commission On Children’s Employment in 1842, set to a suitably atmospheric backing performed by a string quartet. ‘Where’ve Yer Bin Dick’ is a traditional Northern comic song given a rollicking reading by the band, followed swiftly by Ewan McColl’s emotional tribute to his mother ‘Nobody Knew She Was There’. ‘Not Much Luck In Our House’ lightens the mood for 30 seconds or so, before the band tackle Lal Waterson’s ode to birdsong ‘At First She Starts’, set to a brooding orchestral melody from Oliver Knight. Finally we reach the title track – the song that introduced me to the band, and is still my favourite piece of theirs. Another traditional tune - the tender in question being the boat coming to press men to sea - its combination of lyrical story-telling and a beautiful tune, complemented by the understated performance of the group, make for a stunning piece of music that you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by. To lift the mood after that, there is a hidden track in ‘Betsy Bell’, a rollicking jig in classic folk tradition, with fiddles aplenty and a tune to get the feet tapping, which they do when the clogs at last make an appearance! It might seem that this column is somewhat obsessed with folk at the moment, but if that is what the new groups want to play, and the albums are as good as these, then the only answer is to widen your horizons and give them a try. Start with this one as it is easily one of the best of its genre, and then work your way through the rest and discover a music that you might never have known existed.
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