Released last year for their 10th anniversary celebrations and only available directly from the band, The Unthanks Memory Box was a limited edition hand-finished collection that included a DVD featuring, among other things, a feature length film of the Mount the Air tour, live from Newcastle City Hall, a 60 page songbook, a book of recipes from their Northumberland winter singing weekends, the first ever Unthanks 7” single (a splendid cover of The Pretenders’ 2000 Miles and, a BBC session recording of Tar Barrel in Dale by George Unthank), two Art Prints by Becky Unthank and Natalie Rae Reed, two Reed Postcards, assorted photos and a signed screen-printed card. There was also this 76 minute CD of rarities, the only part of the box to be available as a standalone item.
As well as featuring the Christmas single, it comprises a collection of demos, outtakes and exclusive live tracks. The latter, which take up the bulk of the 14 tracks, front end the CD, kicking off with a 2009 performance of On A Monday Morning from Germany and following on with two never-before-heard 2008 Winterset recordings, I Wish, I Wish from Melbourne and crowd favourite Blue Breezing Blind Drunk live from the Holywell Music Room, featuring Stef Connor on piano.
Moving up the years, a slowed down version of Alex Glasgow’s Close The Coalhouse Door incorporating a Niopha Keegan violin instrumental intro, Pat’s Tune, comes from Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre in 2011, the same show also providing The Gallowgate Lad from Last, while Brighton Dome the following year is the source for another cover, a previously unreleased nine-and-a-half minute dense instrumental cover of Robert Wyatt’s nonsense song Alifib/Alifie.
There’s no dates given on the promo for either of the BBC recordings, but Felton Lonnin comes from the Rob Da Bank session of March 13, 2010 while Tar Barrel is a live recording from Ratcliffe and Maconie’s Radio 2 show of Dec 23, 2008 (and was revisited as a 6 Music session for their Manchester Christmas Market show of 2014).
Next up comes the only demo, a 2009 work in progress recording of the trad Queen of Hearts, three years prior to the song’s eventual appearance on Last. Then there’s three recordings taken from other projects: Sexy Sadie was their deconstructed contribution to Mojo Magazine’s White Album tribute (and, like Tar Barrel, also appeared on their 2009 Lucky Gilchrist EP), A Dream Of A Tree In A Spanish Graveyard is lifted from 2012’s Harbour of Songs with the band providing backing accompaniment to the spoken narrative by Barnsleyite poet Ian McMillan, while the traditional Oak, Ash and Thorn was recorded for the 2011 Peter Bellamy project of the same name.
Predating the formation of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset by four years, the album closes with the oldest and rarest recording. Stemming from their formative days and taken from a live unaccompanied recording at the Hartlepool Folk Club in 2000, its titled The Unthank Family Band but, featuring father George on vocals and, is actually an medley of music hall songs He’s Only An Old Village Postman, I Don’t Work For A Living and Daisy Daisy interspersed with clattering tap transitions and rounded off with an unidentifiable accordion-accompanied festive folk song.
One primarily for dedicated completists, Adrian McNally describes the collection as a shelf-clearing selection of snapshots and missing jigsaw pieces providing head space for the next ten years. Here’s hoping they continue with their archiving.
Review by: Mike Davies