The Unthanks occupy a particularly solid pedestal in modern folk. Feted for their own records, they are courted by the great and good and highly respected for their collaborations with artists outside their genre.
That they’ve achieved this whilst retaining, in public at least, a stoic humility in the face of the twenty-first century’s invasive media is to be applauded. It does nothing, however, to quell an increasingly expectant audience who believe they can do no wrong. Their previous studio album, Last, was released in 2011; the horses have swallowed the bit waiting.
Not to worry.
Within the first minute of opener and title track Mount The Air, glistening harp, jazz chords and Hovis trumpet combine; this is no typical folk album. Its ten minute length is orchestral in scope, a mini-suite of stunning invention and sensuous sounds based around a simple refrain discovered at Cecil Sharp House. It’s folk on a different level - airborne, perhaps.
Madam and Died For Love plough a similar path, piano and strings to the fore on tales of love unwanted and unrequited. A brilliant opening quartet finishes with Flutter, its hiccoughing beat mirroring the jumpstart of your heart when it stutters, as it may do listening to this. Flutter wouldn’t sound out of place on a Dot Allison or early Bjork album - tense strings and brushed drums in an exploration of musical boundaries influenced no doubt by their recent excursions with Orbital and Adrian Utley (Portishead).
You’d be forgiven for expecting things to calm down at this point, but there’s more in the tank. The largely a-capella Magpie is supported only by the drone of a squeezebox for bearings. It introduces the extraordinary Foundling, another extended musical adventure that exceeds ten minutes but feels like four. You could build a Tim Rice musical around this song, the child’s separation from her mother and the story of a London Foundling Hospital examined; ’Handel and Hogarth are all about me / I’m fashioned from sequinned philanthropy’.
Beautiful songs like Last Lullaby and the icy Hawthorn would be stand out tracks on many other albums; here they are, laughingly, just excellent. There’s a lightness of touch throughout. Unfussy and uncomplicated, every note adds value and nothing is wasted. Mount The Air is the first truly jaw-dropping album of 2015.Paul Woodgate
Released February 9, 2015 through Rabblerouser Music. For the first time, features writing contributions from all five core members.
1. Mount The Air
3. Died For Love
7. Last Lullaby
9. For Dad
10. The Poor Stranger