As projects go, you'd have to say that the latest one from The Unthanks draws together three remarkable strands under one ambitious umbrella, 'Lines'. The album trilogy is in part written by Maxine Peake, employs poetry from WW1 in another and for the final third uses Emily Bronte's actual, original, piano. Making a cohesive link between the trio of parts are the incredible voices of Becky and Rachel Unthank and the production, arrangement and piano of Adrian McNally.
The first part of this fascinating trilogy is inspired by a Maxine Peake penned Sarah Frankcom production first performed for Hull, 'City Of Culture 2017'. 'The Last Testament Of Lillian Bilocca' tells the story of 'Big Lil', and the women of Hessle Road, Hull, who strove to improve safety at sea for fishermen following the triple trawler disaster of 1968. The words, lyrics, are all Maxine Peake's with McNally providing the score. The Unthanks are no stranger to capturing the mood and atmosphere of the North East's seafaring and shipping history having previously covered the topic on their evocative 2012 album, 'Songs From The Shipyards'. Here Peake encapsulates the attitude of the time perfectly with her portrayal of how Lillian was at first lauded but then vilified for her efforts.
'The Whistling Woman' conveys all the frustration born by Bilocca in a 'man's world' where she should know her place, not have a voice and not meddle where she's not wanted: "For a man may whistle and a man may sing, for a man my do a thousand things, but a whistling woman and a crowing hen may bring the devil out of his den." The lively piano-led soundtrack is accented beautifully with some sympathetic string arrangements and the ever emotive vocals of the Unthank sisters. The gentle melancholy of 'The Sea Is A Woman' uses a markedly more minimalist approach. The sole piano, and partial percussive touches, underpin the quite sublime voices of Rachel and Becky as the reflective story unfolds. An understated elegance closes out the album on the final two tracks. The shuffling snare and serene, melodic vocal on 'Lonesome Cowboy' could almost be from a Badalamenti/Lynch soundtrack before, finally, 'Lillian II (The Banqueting Hall Scene)' concludes part one in an eerily atmospheric style.
'World War One' was written in 2014 to coincide with the marking of the centenary and originally called 'A Time And A Place'. The album begins with an oddity in Unthanks recordings as it's a man, Sam Lee, who heads up the vocals at the start of the track before Rachel and Becky steer it home. This track, 'Roland And Vera', and the Tim Dalling written track that follows, 'Everyone Sang', are the only ones here that are not poems from WW1 that have been turned into songs.
From 'War Film' through 'Breakfast', 'Suicide In The Trenches' to 'Socks', the compositions are all centred around The Great War. The poetry has been carefully chosen and focuses "on lesser known female voices from the time." The tenderness with which each has been treated is audible and the arrangements that cocoon the words are stunningly set. 'Suicide In The Trenches' has a remarkable refrain, 'Breakfast' a lightness of touch on the piano combined with a playful violin accompaniment, whereas 'Socks' goes for the layered harmonies that The Unthanks carry off so exquisitely. The more sombre nature of this track gives extra gravitas to the words.
The final album, 'Emily Bronte', is possibly the most remarkable. Recorded at Emily's home, The Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire, out of the house's visiting hours, it covers nine tracks and takes its inspiration from Bronte's poetry. In a seemingly recurrent theme across the ages, Bronte pleads that we should love the earth again on 'Shall Earth No More Inspire Thee'. The Unthanks convey a despondency in the performance that aptly characterises the mood of the verse. 'High Waving Heather' is more of a celebration, skilfully set by high keys and high vocals that conjures up the moonlit night. There is a recurrent theme in 'The Night Is Darkening Around Me', 'Deep Deep Down In The Silent Grave' and 'O Evening Why'. Here, as with the trilogy's title track, 'Lines', Bronte muses on death. The source for the album's longest track is a gently undulating epic, re-imagining the poem in song form. Each of the tracks was recorded on Bronte's, now restored, cabinet piano with McNally taking the utmost care to play it "very gently."
If you had to pick three subjects that would be a good fit for the Unthanks then these three chosen here would have surely made nearly everyone's shortlist, with the work of Emily Bronte being a particularly good choice. The Unthanks have yet again demonstrated their unique talent at bringing to life historical material and giving it a voice. The sympathetic treatment of the work, the understanding of it and the ability to bring it all together as a whole is inspirational and the voices, well, you won't find a better pair of complementary vocals anywhere.
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