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Is this a symptom of my age that folk suddenly seems so attractive, or is it the inherent melancholia in the music slicing through the loneliness of my own atrophying heart which has caught me in its thread? Whatever the reason, I’ve been listening to ‘Last’ over and over for the last few weeks and it has seeped into my muddied misery with a shimmer of strings and a low hum of regret.
Let’s face it, folk is not my comfort zone. It is a genre I’ve shied away from as too twee and worthy – a flaccid mix of zealous politics and losers in love. Slowly Billy Bragg opened me out to the possibilities of folk as something more than a project in wistful, fragile beauty. If Bragg’s merging of a noisy punk sensibility with folk’s workers solidarity gave me a vision of indigineous music with attitude it was Circulus’s heavy medieval metal, with a zest for life and loudness, that awakened me to a corner of the vision of new folk. But that’s about all my experience of British folk. I feel more in tune with Son House, Robert Johnson and the masters of the Delta Blues than I ever do with a folky vibe. Maybe it is just too northern for me.
Yet here I am, immersed in the gorgeousness of the Unthank sisters breathy, intimate, mesmeric vocals with their mournful string accompaniment. There is something deeply traditional in this music, yet in the cleanness and clarity of production there is a minimalist ethic that allows the songs to stand shyly uncovered. And when they are laid bare there is a chance that the canny will find stories a little more nuanced than simple tales of love lost, life lost and the descent into despair. The refrain ‘disappointment is everywhere’ runsning through ‘Give Away Your Heart’ clicks neatly with my overwhelming ennui. But this isn’t a song about the souring of relationships, rather it is a reaction to the government’s decision to go to war in Iraq. Where PJ Harvey poured a coruscating melodic power into her songs on ‘Let England Shake’, her album about war and the folly of war, ‘Give Away Your Heart’ quietly but firmly voices the distress of the millions who never voted for, who marched against this conflict. Couple this song with the brooding, bleak, bloody final track ‘Close the Coalhouse Door’ and you begin to sense a stoical defiance against all that is violent and malevolent in this land.
Elsewhere the Unthanks’ Northumbrish accents humanise the lonely lives of single young neighbours destined never to meet in ‘Last’ and add a playful mischievousness to the traditional ‘Canny Hobbie Elliot’. In other places I heard echoes of some of the fractured relationships catalogued by Sons and Daughters on the albums ‘Love the Cup’ and ‘The Repulsion Box’ – that might be the outplaying of a similar dark-skied northern humour – and occasionally the lush string arrangements reminded me of the exuberance of Shelleyan Orphan’s ‘Helleborine’. But that might be simply because my knowledge of folk is slight and I don’t have the musical markers to put the Unthanks in the right box. Which doesn’t take away from the power of this album. ‘Last’ reverberates with passion as it slides between the fruitful and the hopeless, the outwardly focused and the introspective, to create a dangerously compelling intimacy.