The band formerly known as Rachel Unthank and The Winterset have not only changed the lineup to some extent and their name but also claimed a change of mood or at least a ‘warmer, calmer shade of sad’ on this, their third album. The last one, 2007’s The Bairns, delivered us unto a world weaved of northern British folk, all expressed delicately in a language more akin to Robbie Burns than Pete Burns. For many reasons it is an album to be taken carefully – and thankfully so. It asks you to step out of the day-to-day, to slow down the pace, to actually listen and absorb and as such it’s not to be brought on the iPod as you weave through the morning rush. The sadness is found in almost every corner too, and though the Unthank sisters seem quite a jovial they are clearly tapping into a historic seam of songwriting as storytelling, and tragic stories of people lost at sea and unhappy arranged marriages carry much more weight and currency, plus they tell us much about the world as inhabited by the characters in the songs.
These stories hold centre stage and most songs tell us the sad fates of people like Patience Kershaw, Lucky Gilchrist (whose track has an odd Style Council feel) and Dick’s girl as well as sailors and soldiers drowning and fighting. Each song brings you into a rich story and almost sits you down in the corner of a warm, dark rural pub to tell it to you. This is where the careful listening comes in. If you lose attention you feel like you’ve just walked out of a conversation and it is with great skill that The Unthanks keep your ear. The tale of Annachie Gordon – or to be more specific, the girl who loved him, is a Romeo and Juliet relocated out of Verona and above the Watford gap and bears up to much repeat listening thanks to the intriguing story and the arrangement which keeps the sadness out of the mire.
The sound has altered somewhat with the shift in line-up and perhaps becomes too subtle over the course of the album. The strings are arranged perfectly in tandem with the songs but sometimes the music lets the story take over too much over the course of the album and the search for a song here that matches the immediacy of -Fareweel Regality’ doesn’t turn up anything as strong. The second side does contain songs of great beauty but this salvo of heartache and loss could perhaps be better served with some musical lift of pace along the way as it can be quite a downer.
That said, -Betsy Bell’ step-dances us out of this album and there’s a beautiful village hall feel about it. Without being an album looking back to the past, it’s more an album made using a craft almost forgotten. The stories are local and the sound is warm and it asks you to abandon the world outside when listening and if the mood takes you (and it will) have a good whisky to hand.