The Unthanks ‘Mount the Air’ CD/LP (Rabbie Rouser Music) 5/5

the-unthanksNow on their own independent label, the Unthanks are musicians in the classic folk tradition and have an intimate knowledge of their native north-east of England. On this latest release, they have expanded their intimate harmony plus instrumentation sound to encompass larger brass orchestrations and the result is a sublime cross-fertilisation of styles with a subtle and tasteful inclusion of brass that never ever detracts from the whole. This writer especially appreciated the trumpet solos, as amply illustrated on the lengthy opener of the title track.
The music here is at once reflective and reposing, yet the melancholia is never depressing, but actually a spiritually uplifting experience. Part of their success probably goes down to their impeccable background knowledge of and quest to explore the northern English folk tradition and beyond, with Ireland never too far from their thoughts. The Unthanks have taken in groups such as the Keelers and the Wilson as well as male sea shanty singers and as a result of this they sound totally authentic in their performances. However, where they win hands down is in their progressive approach, soaking up non-folk influences and then incorporating them into the mix. Pride of place on this occasion goes to the stunning beautiful ‘Magpie’ which may just be a strong enough song to become their signature tune. The a cappella vocals here are a wonder to behold. Of great interest is how the combination of string and piano combine as on the excellent ‘Foundling’ which also features the use of trumpet to good effect. In fact the use of orchestration leads one to consider the possible influence of maestro jazz orchestrator Gil Evans and it would not be surprising to this writer if that were to be the case. The group’s insider knowledge of folk history is displayed on ‘Hawthorn’, in probable reference to the Manchester folk club Gaslamp.

This must be a strong contender already for folk album of the year and make for a fine comparison with their 2005 debut, ‘Cruel Sister’ and its even bleaker follow up, ‘The Bairns’. An appearance on the BBC Jools Holland programme recently will hopefully ensure that a much wider audience are able to take in their wonderful music.

Tim Stenhouse