The Unthanks play folk music. Not the sort of rousing, chest-thumping, arena filling folk music that the likes of Mumford & Sons play, nor the whisky punched stomp of the likes of The Pogues from the 1980’s. No, The Unthanks play downbeat, mournful, utterly bewitching traditional folk music, much of it handed down from generation to generation.
When I was younger I always thought of folk music as being something that old men with beards and aran knitwear exclusively listened to. The closest I got to this form of music as I was growing up was probably The Waterboys album Fisherman’s Blues and much of The Pogues output, but by and large my ears weren’t open enough, my experiences not broad enough and my prejudices too strong to really give this music a chance. Yet slowly as the years have gone on folk music has become an integral part of my life. I still don’t have the aran jumper or the beard, but at least now I’m old; or older I prefer to say - although my children delight in telling me how ancient I am.
I first encountered The Unthanks when they were still known as Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, before various line-up changes and Rachel Unthank''s sister Becky committing firmly to the band after university. The moment of discovery was, like any hugely passionate music fan, at a live show. The Unthanks had just been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize for their haunting second album The Bairns and so inevitably a large crowd of onlookers had gathered to watch them play at Summer Sundae Festival in Leicester in 2008, myself and my family included. The group played in the De Montford Hall, a traditional civic theatre style venue and so to ensure we got a good view (my children being only relatively small and the audience in the stalls being standing) we sat on the side balcony to watch them play. From the moments the lights went down and The Unthanks stepped on stage I fell utterly in love. The pristine spacious mix of spectral piano, lush violins and achingly beautiful Geordie accented vocals created a moment of ghost like stillness in the hall. It was captivating. Dry eyes didn’t last very long. It really felt like I’d witnessed something very special indeed.
From this moment on I became a huge fan of The Unthanks. They have now released four albums, three of which are so timeless, so tense and so bewitching that if I was naming my Top 100 albums of all time, they would all appear in the list. It’s almost impossible to pick just one song for them for this series, so exquisite are so many of them, but I’ve chosen The Testimony of Patience Kershaw from their album Here’s The Tender Coming. The lyrics are based on the real spoken testament of Patience Kershaw, aged 17, to the Royal Commission on Children’s Employment in 1842 about her life working down the mine. The words are sweetly polite but also horribly sad.
Even now as I listen to this exceptional song again, a shiver runs down my spine. In the fast world of the internet and where music bloggers forget artists that they were claiming to be the next big thing every second, the music of The Unthanks will, I’m sure, stand the test of time. The video below shows the band playing the song live.