In 2008 the Mercury Music Prize nominations elevated Rachel Unthank and the Winterset from relative obscurity to a broader music audience. Their album The Bairns was included on a strong list that featured albums from Elbow, Laura Marling, Radiohead and Burial, all of which we hold in high regard. The Bairns was worthy of inclusion on the list, being a bewitching yet lyrically bleak update on traditional English folk music and in particular Northumbrian folk music. Their live show was also one of the highlights of that particular musical year.
Step forward to 2009 and a few changes have taken place for the groups third album Here’s The Tender Coming. First the band have changed their name to just The Unthanks. This change represents the long standing reality that Rachel Unthank’s sister Becky is a co-vocalist in the band, and is now fully committed to the group, whereas when the band started Becky was just about to set sail to university and her future was less clear. Secondly the line up of the group has changed with Adrian, husband of Rachel replacing pianist Stef who has left to finish her PHD. Another new member Chris Price has joined to play bass, guitar and ukulele. Niopha Keegan, violinist also remains.
So for Here’s The Tender Coming there has been a band reshuffle, but the music remains as good as ever. It may not be quite as mesmerising as The Bairns, but it is still a recording of very high quality.
Following the same pattern as The Bairns, the majority of the songs on Here’s The Tender Coming are traditional folk songs, with the addition of one self penned number Lucky Gilchrist - a track about a friend of Rachel’s that sadly died last year. Formed around a repetitive piano outpouring and accompanying strings it is one of the songs that sounds least like anything on The Bairns - with a multi layered choral backing and Rachel singing “Lucky G was full of glee, a bit like Freddie Mercury, camp and yet angry, except you had a lady.”
Elsewhere the remainder of Here’s The Tender Coming brings the groups ability to sing specific stories of the trails, tribulations and hardships of working class people from times past and make them seem emotionally engaging to a modern audience into sharp focus. The arrangements on the album are in many places bigger and warmer than The Bairns, even if many of the songs are doleful in their nature. Nobody Knew She Was There describes the lonely unnoticed life of a cleaner and her “Bent backed homage.” The sorrowful Annachie Gordon sung softly and beautifully by Becky tells the tale of a woman forced to marry a man she doesn’t love for monetary gain rather than her true love. Then on The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw chamber violins provide a powerful backing for a song based on the spoken testament of a seventeen year old female coalmine worker given to the Royal Commission on Children’s Employment in 1842. “The naked men will batter me, they can’t be blamed for if I’m slow, their families will starve you see,” the narrator adds with a sense of tragic acceptance of her situation.
The combination of Rachel and Becky’s rootsy harmonies and subtle traditional instrumentation makes for a richly rewarding delivery of the songs, without ever falling into folk cliché. So, for those who treasured The Bairns and for those who just love good music irrespective of genre or style, Here’s The Tender Coming is certainly worthy of your purchase and repeated listening.
Footnote : *This review of Here’s The Tender Coming by The Unthanks was meant to be published several weeks ago. However, we held back, waiting for a video of one of the songs from the album to go up on line as we like to do, wherever possible. However, as yet nothing has been published. The only footage from the album seems to be a version of The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw recorded live for the Guardian which we can only link to rather than embed, through clicking here