The Unthanks – Mount The Air (2015)

I recall a time when CD packaging included helpful instructions for bewildered shop staff and merchandisers. ‘File under “pop”’ or ‘file under “jazz”’.

I don’t know who came up with this stuff. I didn’t find it very helpful other than in that it confirmed something I’d already decided – musicians aren’t easily pigeonholed. Especially the really interesing ones.

Neil Young CDs, for example, were labelled ‘file under “folk”’. And that’s where those CDs were binned at my local Look And Listen branch: Folk.

The Unthanks would have been filed under “folk” as well. More accurately, I suppose. But acts like the Unthanks require us to give up pigeonholing, to regard “folk” as not so much a thing but as all that is not several other things (not rock, not classical, not reggae etc) or to ask questions about what the heck “folk” actually is.

This is the first Unthanks album I’ve listened to, and once again I’m probably starting in the wrong place (but at least I started). They’ve been going for a while, receiving a lot more critical praise than income, somehow keeping going and, so I read, developing quite a lot with every album. So Muggins goes and starts with their latest album and has to work backwards.

And I will. This won’t be the last Unthanks album I buy.

It had me wondering for a while why they should have been filed under “folk”. The album opens with a ten minute piece that marries the Unthank sisters dreamy vocals (that really is their name, by the way) with a sophisticated melody and arrangement which owes more to Miles Davis than it does to any British folk tradition. Though it turns out that some of the lyrics are based on a traditional song, and I suppose this tips off of to the real nature of the game: The Unthanks are tapping folk traditions but taking these old songs into new places, or writing their own songs that spring from those traditions.

What they don’t do is treat this old music like a museum piece. And the great folk artists (and I do mean great) that I’ve been lucky enough to see live – Martin Simpson, Martin Carthy and his daughter Eliza, and Eliza’s mum, the amazing Norma Waterson – all have that element to what they do. They present these songs as living, vibrant, relevant things, and they kick them around, cut bits out, add bits in, sing this song’s words to that song’s melody. Never carelessly, always with affection and respect.

Despite the name of the band, the Unthanks sisters vocals are not the only attraction or even the main attraction here. Adrian McNally (married to Rachel Unthank) produces, arranges and contributes to much of the writing. He provides the rich yet spare support for the voices.

It’s not an easy snack, this music, but there are rewards to be had once you’ve allowed the melodies, the gorgeous arrangements and solos (mostly, but not all trumpet) and those vocals (how many times have I mentioned them now) to seduce you. At first listen I thought it was a bit one-paced, but that didn’t bother me so much on repeat listenings. Take it as a whole, not just as a collection of songs (which is why albums are so good and such a true test of the musician – and the listener).

Tap into contemporary British folk music and you’ll find much more than old blokes in cable knit sweaters with a pint and a finger in their ear. But for some decades now the old traditions have been revisited, turned over and bought up to date without the essence being destroyed (this goes back at least as far as the Incredible String Band in the mid 60s). The canon, and the ways of reinventing it seems almost endless.

The trick that is worked here is to marry the spirit of these old songs with a coolly sophisticated delivery – nothing overstated, everything measured, and not what you’d imagine if you started thinking about what should be filed under “folk”. But just underneath the surface is the dark passion and drama of old songs that have survived down the centuries.