The Unthanks have always been one of Britain’s most innovative and original folk groups, particularly in their Diversions series. Previous escapades under this banner have included working with the prestigious Brighouse and Rastrick brass band, and creating the soundtrack to a documentary about shipbuilding on the Tyne, Wear and Tees. The series continues with their latest release, Diversions Vol. 4 - The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake.
Molly Drake was the mother of legendary English singer-songwriter Nick Drake, and although Nick’s work has become very well-known and loved, Molly was almost entirely unknown during her lifetime, despite being a prolific composer of both poetry and song.
None of her work was published during her life, but in the last decade some of her home recordings have been released, and caught the attention of The Unthanks. They decided to put together an album of her work, and have collaborated with her daughter, Gabrielle, who reads the poetry on the album.
As always with The Unthanks, the arrangements on this album are first-class. The reserved piano and string accompaniment is the perfect counterpart to Drake’s melancholy lyrics and wistful melodies, which are beautifully performed by the silky-smooth Northumbrian harmonies of Rachel and Becky Unthank. One of the finest examples is I Remember, which captures the aching beauty of Drake’s evocative lyric perfectly.
There are two tracks, Martha and The Shell, which are just spoken word from Gabrielle Drake. Her clear, rhythmic voice brings her mother’s words to life, and allows the beautifully crafted poems to speak for themselves.
The best moments of the album, however, are where the Unthanks’ musicianship and Drake’s spoken word work together in perfect balance. One of the best is Set Me Free, which melds an almost painfully gorgeous song of unrequited love with a grief-stricken poem on the same theme to create a stunningly effective tear-jerker.
The album’s masterpiece, though, is its final track. The First Day is a seven-minute epic, starting with a haunting instrumental section backed by the unmistakable sounds of a rowing boat moving slowly on a lake. This leads into a cautiously optimistic lyric about living each day as it comes, before Gabrielle Drake leaves us with perhaps the most captivating of her mother’s words: “If I’ve a prayer for love, let it be this: that I love wisely, well, and love what is”.
The upward-looking and yet somehow downcast ending is the perfect finish to a truly enthralling glance at the work of one of Britain’s finest undiscovered voices.Will Wilkins
Released on 26 May 2017 on RabbleRouser Music.
1. What Can a Song Do to You?
2. Dream Your Dreams
4. How Wild the Wind Blows
5. Little Weaver Bird
6. Bird in the Blue
7. The Road to the Stars
8. Set Me Free
9. Woods in May
10. I Remember
11. Never Pine for the Old Love
12. The Shell
13. Soft Shelled Crabs
14. Do You Ever Remember?
15. The First Day