Fox, Mitch and the beach ball: great music, great crack
Show of Hands: shipwrecks and human debris

Unthanks: sensational, wild, inspirational


The Unthanks Here's The Tender Coming (EMI)

The three adjectives in the headline are taken from Lucky Gilchrist, a spellbinding track on the Unthanks' new album that marks the death of a Glaswegian friend of Rachel Unthank, Gary Gilchrist. They could also apply to the album.

Here's The Tender Coming is the complete answer to those who cried "can't sing", "not folk", "commercial sellouts" and the rest during the strange debate - especially at Mudcat - that led to Salut! Live's gripping interview with Rachel 20 months ago.

It may be a function of age, but I need time before I can fully appreciate some new releases. Bob Fox mocks me to this day over my initially measured verdict on Dreams Never Leave You, which I went on to make my album of 2000. I had to hold up my hands: it simply grew and grew on me.

I still have some difficulties with the Unthanks' first album, Cruel Sister. But this is quite different. Perhaps the instant appeal had something to do with playing it at full blast while driving through beautiful Richmond Park. Maybe I am just a sucker for the seductive singing, with irresistible North-eastern accents, of Rachel and her sister Becky. I could even be right in an early impression that the album owes a little to hints of a Geordified The Celts. Some would regard that as a slight, but I am not among them and would sooner listen to Enya any day than what became of Clannad. Lucky Gilchrist's name is chanted almost in football terrace fashion, which also works perfectly for me, despite the tribal distinction that divides the Unthanks and Sunderland-supporting Salut! Live.

Looking for an outstanding performance on an album of such integrity, substance and flair is a tough challenge. Fed on a diet of classic versions by Nic Jones, June Tabor, Mary Black and Sinead O'Connor, I approached Becky's reading of Annachie Gordon with a trace of uncertainty. I had no need to worry. The phrasing and timing are exquisite, adding even more power and agony than usual to this wonderful but tragic ballad. And feel the suspense created by the solemn, dramatic instrumentation with an extraordinary array of tools from chime bars, "dampened piano" and tubular bells to Chinese temple gongs.

But even that is not, for me, the standout track.

Anyone who has ever doubted the scale of human suffering in the mines, chimneys, factories, mills and fields of Victorian Britain should be made to listen to The Testament of Patience Kershaw, a quite remarkable work based on the words of a 17-year-old girl to a Royal Commission on children's employment in 1842.

The appalling existence described, with a mixture of exaggerated courtesy and grim honesty, could have made for difficult listening. But Rachel has turned it into a triumph of gritty, understated polemic and done great justice to a tremendous song.

Becky's Nobody Knew She Was There, Ewan MacColl's portrayal of another woman's hard life, as a cleaner, and the sisters' vocal interplay with Niopha Keegan on Graham Miles's Sad February are also strong elements. In truth, though, there's nothing I would wish to change in what is an excellently sung, magically produced (by Adrian McNally) and fascinating folk record.

Unthanks band


Martin Snodin

Great review of a beautiful and, I think, important album.


Makes you want to forgive them for being Mags ...

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