There’s no hanging about at the Unthank household. Just over a year since The Tender Coming, we are presented with a new album, Last. It is another part of their continued re-imagining of British folk and, as their successful 2010 live collaboration with the songs of Antony & the Johnsons attests, their approach to contemporary music can take almost any song they choose and extract the sad beauty, the DNA of much folk music. The record covers some similar ground as its predecessors but its choice of songs is much more melancholic and its music now very assured in its own right, leaving a lot of the affectations of a folk sound behind and becoming more orchestral – essentially trading fiddles for violins and more piano.
Opening with ‘Gan to the Kye’, a sombre tale of loss with an almost funereal instrumentation, it slows the listener right down and deserves a hearing far away from any distractions of modern life. A diversion from the first three songs (distinctive as folk songs in their words and phrasing) is band member Adrian McNally’s title track. A moving look at time clocking on and the chances we often miss, the listener may now realise that The Unthanks are delving into melancholic themes without respite, something that Nick Cave has also successfully made many albums from. The next track ‘Give Away Your Heart’ actually seems cut from the same cloth as Cave’s ‘No More Shall We Part’, especially in McNally’s tender piano.
Tom Waits’ ‘No One Knows I’m Gone’ fits perfectly into the themes and Becky Unthank’s voice fits Waits’ lyrics like a glove. If the music so far has torn the heart somewhat then their version of King Crimson’s ‘Starless’ is going to pour right in with its strings and lazy, lone trumpet. It may leave the listener is a very delicate disposition to hear the seven-minute tale of atrocities that is ‘Close the Coalhouse Door’ but thankfully a lighter reprise of the title track closes the album and lifts us out of the blackness.
A delicate album it is, and often dark and sad too but for this DIY troupe it’s an album astounding in the depth of its treatment of these themes. The ground they have tread before, be they some of the more distinctive ‘folk’ tracks, become less interesting than the self-penned songs and more contemporary covers which don’t have the affectation of the older language (words like ‘laddie’, canny’ and so on). These songs allow the voice of the band (folk in their own right) to take the lead and in some way retroactively deliver modern themes (or at least modern writing) in a method and mood from long before they were penned.