There are times in this life that come through fairly infrequently when you are overwhelmed with the feeling that this is about as good as it gets. They can be personal, geographical, familial, born of kinship, friendship, or perhaps sporting triumphs, add your own ‘moments’ to the list here. Of course they can be artistic too, visual through paintings, photographs or films, books and literature and of course musical. In the latter case of recorded music, they come with the added bonus of immediate rewind and replay. In the case of Mount The Air, the 10-minute plus title track of the new Unthanks’ album, that’s exactly what I did. Went back to the start and had to play it again. It’s simply one of the most profoundly beautiful things I have ever had the privilege of hearing and as I let the record play through the second time around, it also proved the gateway to a great record. I’ll go further…
If you can think of a band as one body, then in some ways, you could call The Unthanks, the perfect Pygmalion. At the heart are two sisters who have grown up with folksong in all it’s communal glory, revelling in robust group singing without fear, until having learnt the basics, they exhibit equal joy in their highly attuned, innate harmonies. Adrian McNally is then like the vessels, the veins and arteries down which the music flows to the limits of its creation, while Niopha Keegan, Chris Price and the others who make up the 10 piece live band, put the flesh on the bones. It’s their collective, hive mind, however, that is the key to the way it all functions, fits together and chases musical form towards ultimate finesse. If that all sounds a touch Doctor Frankenstein and lets face it, the results of that line of thought when applied to some others can be monstrous, I’m suggesting symbiosis rather than slaughter and stitch up.
It may be another of my more fanciful analogies, then in part at least, it comes about by trying to consider music that refuses boundaries. The Unthanks’ website takes a deliberately contrary delight in dodging categorisation for the band or their sound. Opposites are presented as equals. What they are is what they are not and vice versa. At the same time you can quite easily recognise the constituent parts, the pieces that make up The Unthanks’ sound, it’s just that when it all comes together, there are times when the music asks you to consider everything you know and un-think it.
The results in the case of Mount The Air comes on the back of two years of steady work. In some ways, a natural pause was needed in the Unthanks’ musical flow, on the back of three albums released in 12 months under the Diversions banner, which in turn had quickly followed Last. The distinction is that Last was made under their deal with EMI, while the Diversions series, were specific projects and collaborations done under their own steam. Such divisions, as suggested, are arbitrary so that amounts to four albums in 20 months, an impressive work rate, more akin to 60’s pop stars, or Richard and Linda Thompson pre-Sufism. The other factor is that life has intervened and Rachel and Adrian now have a young family and two bairns, one now at nursery-age the other younger still.
Their own studio set up has also, therefore, been an essential part of the making of Mount The Air. They have, of course, been used to recording at home anyway, although now with two children, never noted for sticking to anyone’s timetable but their own, the chance to move to a nearby building has proved invaluable. They are enjoying the patronage of a local couple, fans of the band for some time, who have generously allowed them to use an otherwise empty building for their purposes. It’s allowed Adrian in particular, to play the doting father and to then slip off down the road to work late into the night, even if the luxury of a lie in was denied the following morning.
I’ve already talked about the opening track, but things are deceptive. There’s a trumpet that comes in that initially made me think we were maybe getting back into Brighouse territory, albeit with a Latin lilt. But as the track developed it became clear we were heading somewhere else entirely and Adrian had found his inner Gil Evans and was taking us for a Spanish stroll. It’s hugely romantic, the loose-limbed drums splashing around as Tom Arthurs, who I know from his Mesmer project, delivers one of the great trumpet solos.
The song itself is based on the traditional I’ll Mount The Air On Swallows Wings, a traditional song from Dorset, which was originally found by Becky in a book in Cecil Sharp House. But once the orchestration took shape the song changed melodically and Becky transformed the sentiment of the original single verse into something that quietly and subtly matches the emotional intensity of the arrangement. The invitation to Mount The Air and fly with the song is impossible to resist.
From that opening it’s perhaps right to be expecting another big sounding record, symphonic and expansive. The cymbal splash that opens the traditional song Madam is indeed suggestive that this is where we are headed, yet the steady muted piano and the natural sound of Rachel’s voice create a far more intimate feel. Sure, there are swelling strings and brass, Becky’s harmonies and more to add to the emotional lift, yet it’s a gentle, effortless rise as you catch the updraft. Died For Love, another traditional arrangement pulls off the same trick, starting with a sombre sweep of strings and drums that swirl around the kit with brushed strokes rather than an explosion. It’s another gorgeous melody taken by piano and strings along a gentle course. Even the backing choir is underplayed, accentuating the melody from within the mix, while the climatic surge feels a little like King Crimson in pastoral mode.
The next three songs take us out of the tradition, the first being Becky’s Flutter, which is probably the closest to the trip-hop end of the Unthanks’ canon that the album gets. It’s still muted electric piano, with skittering drums and strings that have a strangely distant feel above which Becky’s voice floats with her distinctive spectral grace. The song suggests both the incredible, insatiable, sensational awakening of new life and its impermanence at the same time. Magpie is credited to Dave Dodds, it draws on the traditional counting rhymes as well as the darker side of the bird’s character. In some ways it echoes the work Becky did with Martin Green on Crow’s Bones. The drone of harmonium, the subtle punctuation of percussion, but above all, the sister’s harmonies pushed to the fore have a goose-bump effect.
You could argue that those songs are linked through the, “Three for a girl and four for a boy,” motif, but then Adrian’s Foundling takes the story of a young life into another realm. The story of the refuge set up for children whose family poverty and circumstances would otherwise have put them on the streets is a moving one, preserved by London’s Foundling Museum. The sleeve notes here suggest this suite was originally inspired by a commission that came at the wrong time, so instead it forms the longest and most expansive piece on the album. It’s also heartbreakingly sung by Rachel, as the mother against whom fates conspires with Becky answering as the child, while the orchestration is sublime, there is a happy ending. Last Lullaby mixes original material from Rachel with a traditional lullaby and continues the inspiration and theme through, musically as well as lyrically, adding further nuance to the emotional tangle with heavenly harmonies.
We get back to more intimate sonic territory and also the tradition with the beautiful and melancholic Hawthorn, a song that Becky learnt at a singing session in Manchester, while she lived there. The song compares the riches of finery with the lack of love and the words are a poem written by Charles Causley. Love is very much to the fore, however in Niopha Keegan’s For Dad, a beautiful, lamenting fiddle tune written in commemoration. After his death an archive of tapes was uncovered, including the artless recording that adds another huge emotional frisson to the start of the track.
Compared with what has gone before, The Poor Stranger is simply played, arranged and sung. The song was collected by Cecil Sharp from a singer in North Carolina and it’s given the most straightforward treatment on the album with Adrian’s piano, a little of Niopha’s fiddle and Rachel’s voice warning against the perils of false hearted young men. It sets up the finale with Chris Price swapping from bass to acoustic guitar for a delightful instrumental, co-written with Adrian, that has a little of The Penguin Café Orchestra, or perhaps Spiro about it.
With two tracks at over 10 minutes, this was never going to be a short album, but an album it is and one that grabs the supposed death of that format by the ears and announces, “Not on my watch!” It does what great albums do, takes you on a journey, offers surprises, but gives you rewards on route, satisfying head and heart, with some moments of pure emotional static charge that make the hairs on the neck stand proud. It’s beautiful yet stark, orchestral yet intimate, clever yet with simple purity, dark yet kissed with light, ascendant yet earthy and rooted. Above all that, it’s The Unthanks at their best and as I said at the start, it just doesn’t get better.
Review by: Simon Holland
Mount The Air will be released on their own label, RabbleRouser Music, on 9th Feb 2015.
Mount The Air Tour
21 Feb Southampton Turner Sims
22 Feb Exeter Corn Exchange
24 Feb Yeovil Octagon Theatre
25 Feb Bristol Colston Hall
26 Feb Cardiff St George’s Hall
27 Feb Nottingham Albert Hall
28 Feb Sheffield City Hall
01 Mar Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
03 Mar Bury St Edmunds The Apex
04 Mar Brighton Dome
05 Mar Ashford Revelation St Mary’s
06 Mar Norwich Open
07 Mar London The Roundhouse
08 Mar Warwick Arts Centre
10 Mar Leeds Irish Centre
11 Mar Manchester The Ritz
12 Mar Dublin National Concert Hall
13 Mar Belfast Empire
14 Mar Newcastle City Hall
19 Mar Middlesbrough Town Hall
20 Mar Edinburgh Queens Hall