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Unthanks

It has been a busy year for The Unthanks. Long tours of Europe and America, soundtracks for theatre and soon film, exploratory concerts of music by Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, collaborations with Charles Hazelwood, Adrian Utley and Paul Morley, visits to Africa with Damon Albarn, Flea and Joan Wasser, presenting TV programmes for BBC4, theatre shows with Colin Firth and Keira Knightley, Rachel Unthank is now pregnant, expecting a baby in June with husband and band mate Adrian McNally… and all along they were plotting and making their most ambitious music to date.

The Mercury nominated 2007 album The Bairns was the only British folk album both in the The Guardian and Uncut’s best albums of the decade. If there is only one this next decade, it could be Last. Without doubt the most confident and important Unthanks album to date.

The record is named after its title track, written by Unthanks pianist, producer and arranger Adrian McNally. “Let’s get it out of the way straight off – the title is not meant to imply that this record is our last!” says Adrian. “The word is meant in its most positive definition, as a call to arms, in terms of the emotional future of mankind and of the earth itself. It’s all a bit Pink Floyd in that big picture / disillusionment / alienation kind of way! The song isn’t about how great the past is; rather it’s about asking why the future doesn’t look so great. I hope though, that it doesn’t come across as a negative song. Cynicism is often the accusation when impassioned optimism is the intention!”

The Unthanks continue their predilection for unlikely covers, with interpretations of King Crimson’s Starless, a Tom Waits song, and a song intended to champion the unheralded British songwriter Jon Redfern. More about these song choices and about McNally’s title track can be found in the sleeve notes of the album.

“We got a review once bemoaning that we don’t write more of our own material,” says McNally, “Which to me is kind of like criticising a hip hop artist for not doing more heavy metal. Rachel and Becky are performers, storytellers. They don’t imagine that they have anything to say to the world that hasn’t been said better within the vast cannon of music history, and so their muse is to tell of songs that have not been told enough or in a way we’d like to. I think Dick Gaughan once said that every song needs a thousand singers, and if José González can make a Kylie song sound profound, anything is possible! Songwriters are often the last person to realise what they’ve written or what it could mean. Actors don’t get criticized for not writing their own films. Their job is to bring to the story their own interpretation and bring it to life off the page in a way that is unique to them. It’s no surprise in the Simon Cowell era that the cover version is viewed as a lowly trick, but at the same time I think we are getting back to the value and sheer fun of artists interpreting each other’s writing as well as the happy thing that is the resurgence of traditional music in our country and others.”

Last was made predominantly at the snowed-under Northumberland farmhouse that is home of Rachel and Adrian. Having made the highly successful Here’s The Tender Coming in a studio, the return to home recording might have signaled a move back to the intimacy of their earlier work, but in practice, Last takes on the epic hallmarks of a masterpiece, in terms of the scale and atmosphere of the setting. This in part is down to the unlikely locations The Unthanks chose to gamble on. Having written Last during a soundcheck at Snape Maltings, a beautiful Victorian wooden maltings converted into a concert hall, McNally couldn’t resist but go back and record it there on the piano and acoustics he had fallen in love with. The piano for some of the other tracks was done there, and then The Unthanks discovered a local Northumberland village hall in which they recorded the strings, along with the haunting group vocals on the opening track Gan To The Kye. “Normally if I want to make our string section sound big I have to record them a few times to make it sound like a larger ensemble,” says Adrian, “but the acoustics of our village hall made our quartet sound like a symphony orchestra in the Albert Hall, so I didn’t have to! It’s strange because in many ways this album is much more DIY than Here’s The Tender Coming, because we have returned to recording at home. Or at least that was the plan. The joy we have had at the Maltings and our village hall has totally informed the album, in terms of its sound and scale, in a way we never intended”.

It is a sound and scale that like Felton Lonin from The Bairns, evokes the atmosphere of the landscape of Tyneside and Northumberland; the relationship anomaly between the bleak starkness and beauty of it’s open spaces, between the peaceful landscape that is given an eerie quality by it’s bloody and then industrial past.

Yet in tracks like The Gallowgate Lad and Queen of Hearts (a probable single) there is a romanticism and sentimentality evocative of the folk music of some European countries. “We knew these songs only as unaccompanied,” says McNally, “and they sounded for all the world like English folk songs, which they are, but when I started exploring them musically, I found all these other flavours and stylistic hallmarks of other traditions inherent in the melodies. The nature of unaccompanied traditional song often masks the influences on the songwriter at the time, and it’s a joy to unravel the mysteries of what might have been a influence on songs we will never know the writers of.”

That romanticism is evoked on the album cover. Adrian: “When we found this image, we were even more overjoyed when we discover it was by Winslow Homer, who came to Cullercoats in the North East to paint in the 19th Century. We arranged the music to a play about him that ran earlier this year, so it’s a happy coincidence. I suppose the image is our equivalent of Blur’s tremendous steam train on the cover of Modern Life Is Rubbish. For us, our sleeve is a depiction of the value of social behaviour on the human condition. I heard or read someone say once that the only true emotional nourishment available to human beings is from human beings. Lord knows we spend more time staring at a screen than into eyes these days.”

Review

We hear the word ‘buzz’ a lot these days, but these folks surely deserve it, with their fourth album showing a marked growth. These folk-ternative mournsters draw on folk iconoclasts like Fairport, Steeleye and the Incredible String Band, while retaining a modern indie sensibility à la Sufjan/Devendra/Antony/ Joanna. All of which sounds like rather a neither here-nor-there approach, but believe me, it works. Songs of raw and (let’s be honest) immensely depressing naked emotion, delivered by the sublime Rachel Unthank. Songs of considerable originality (which this frankly cliché-riddled scribe seems unable to do justice). This is music beyond adjectives: just buy it.

Richard Mohr is a guest reviewer.

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