The Unthanks (until 2009 called Rachel Unthank and the Winterset) are an English folk group known for their eclectic approach in combining traditional English folk, particularly Northumbrian folk music, with other musical genres.[nb 1][nb 2] Their debut album, Cruel Sister, was Mojo magazine's Folk Album of the Year in 2005. Of their subsequent albums, nine have received four or five-starred reviews in the British national press. Their album Mount the Air, released in 2015, won in the best album category in the 2016 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. In 2017 they released two albums featuring the songs and poems of Molly Drake, mother of singer-songwriter and musician Nick Drake.
|Origin||Tyne and Wear, England, United Kingdom|
|Labels||Rabble Rouser, EMI, Rough Trade|
|Past members||(of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset)|
Lines (Parts One, Two & Three), a trilogy of albums about the Hull triple trawler tragedy (1968), the First World War and the poems of Emily Brontë, the principal link between them being their focusing on female perspectives across time, was released in February 2019. Their most recent album, Live and Unaccompanied, was released in March 2020.
Rachel Unthank and the WintersetEdit
Originally an all-female band, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset made their debut performance at Towersey Village Festival in August 2004 and, on 11 May 2005, launched their debut album Cruel Sister at Holmfirth Folk Festival. Cruel Sister received support from a number of DJs on BBC Radio 2 and was subsequently awarded Folk Album of the Year by Mojo magazine.
Their follow-up album, The Bairns, released on 20 August 2007, was nominated for the Best Album award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2008 and was runner-up for the 2008 Mercury Prize. The album debuted in the UK Top 200 Albums Chart at number 178 in the week after the Mercury Prize award ceremony. Reviewing The Bairns for BBC Music, Mel Ledgard described it as "an album with a cinematic quality, huge in dramatic atmosphere". In a four-starred review, Robin Denselow of The Guardian nominated it as "one of the folk records of the year".
The band were nominated for three further BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2008 (Best Band, Best Live Act, Horizon Award), and were successful in one category, receiving the Horizon Award at the ceremony in The Brewery, London.
Here's the Tender ComingEdit
In 2009, the band became the Unthanks, and their manager Adrian McNally and his childhood friend Chris Price joined the group. Here's the Tender Coming, their third album (and the first under the Unthanks moniker), was released on 14 September 2009. It was Folk Album of the Year for The Guardian and also for Mojo magazine. Sid Smith, of BBC Music, described it as an "astonishing record", "beautiful", "haunting", and "beguiling". In a four-starred review for The Guardian, Colin Irwin said: "This album may not be quite as bleak as The Bairns, and the sound is more sophisticated, but they still sound like nobody else... Tracks build slowly and mysteriously, but all are in service of the song. Their arrangement of the title track − a traditional song about the emotional devastation wrought by press gangs − brilliantly encapsulates the story's fraught desperation. Their version of Nobody Knew She Was There, one of Ewan MacColl's lesser-known songs about his mother, painstakingly paints a similarly dramatic backdrop with more atmospheric brass, and they put their own stamp on the Nic Jones classic, Annachie Gordon."
Their fourth album, Last, was released on 14 March 2011, reaching number 40 in the UK albums chart, and received a five-starred review in the Sunday Express and four-starred reviews in The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. In his review for the Sunday Express, Martin Townsend proclaimed it "a gorgeously unhurried, utterly mesmerising masterpiece". Thomas H Green of The Daily Telegraph said it was "string-laden and luscious but also delicate, wistful and melancholy". Robin Denselow, for The Guardian, described it as "a bold and highly original set". Sid Smith, for BBC Music, said that "Proving once again that sad songs are very often the best, their fourth album is brimming with material that is as haunting as it is beautiful."
Writing in NME, Anthony Thornton said that the album "proves the mix of Rachel and Becky’s voices to be one of the true wonders of 21st-century music". As well as traditional material, the album included a song written by band member Adrian McNally ("Last"), and versions of songs by Jon Redfern ("Give Away Your Heart"), Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan ("No One Knows I'm Gone"), King Crimson ("Starless") and Alex Glasgow ("Close the Coalhouse Door").
The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The JohnsonsEdit
In a departure from their usual practice of showcasing material from their studio albums, the Unthanks performed two concerts at London's Union Chapel on 8 and 9 December 2010 consisting entirely of material written by Robert Wyatt and by Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. The concerts were recorded, and The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, a live album based on these recordings, was released on 28 November 2011 to coincide with a UK tour. In a four-starred review, The Observer called the album "A triumphant excursion".
The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass BandEdit
In July 2011, starting with concerts at Durham Cathedral and at London's Barbican Hall, they began a UK tour with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, performing new brass arrangements of songs from all four Unthanks albums, as well as new material. A live album, based on these concerts, was released in July 2012. In a four-starred review, Robin Denselow of The Guardian described the album as the Unthanks' boldest experiment yet. In a five-starred review, Martin Townsend in the Daily Express said it was "easily the band’s best and most mature album to date". The album was designated Vol. 2 in the Unthanks' Diversions series and followed on from Vol. 1 (The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons).
Songs from the ShipyardsEdit
Songs from the Shipyards, Vol. 3 in the Unthanks' Diversions series, was released in November 2012. This is a studio-recorded album of songs from a soundtrack, compiled by the Unthanks, which was first performed live in February 2011 at Newcastle upon Tyne's Tyneside Cinema to accompany the showing of a documentary film by Richard Fenwick about the history of shipbuilding on the Tyne, Wear and Tees. The album includes Elvis Costello's "Shipbuilding" and songs by Graeme Miles, Alex Glasgow, Archie Fisher, John Tams, Peter Bellamy and Jez Lowe, plus a centrepiece track, "The Romantic Tees", written by Adrian McNally. In a four-starred review The Observer's Neil Spencer described it as "a stark creation, using little more than piano, violin and voices" but said that its minimalism "lends poignancy to songs and poetry narrating the glory and grime of a vanished era".
Mount the AirEdit
Their album Mount the Air, released in February 2015, received five-starred reviews in The Daily Telegraph and The Irish Times. The Telegraph 's reviewer Helen Brown described the album as "a slow, swirling affair that mixes original material with traditional tales. Underpinned by McNally’s cool, fluid piano it’s simultaneously ancient and fresh." Joe Breen, writing in The Irish Times, called it "their most ambitious work" and said that it "places them in the same league as the likes of The Gloaming and the Punch Brothers". In a four-starred review for the Financial Times, David Honigmann said: "Once a bleak Northumbrian chamber folk outfit, the Unthanks have reinvented themselves on a symphonic scale, as witness the 10-minute title track, ushered in on harps and with an orchestration that recalls Gil Evans’s work for Miles Davis." Robin Denselow, in a four-starred review for The Guardian, said: "This is a return to the gentle melancholia of Last, and while there are fine vocals from the Unthank sisters, the dominant figure is Rachel’s husband, Adrian McNally, who plays keyboards and percussion, and produced and wrote much of the music... It’s a lush, often exquisite set". Teddy Jamieson, writing in the Sunday Herald, said: "The Unthanks return with an album that takes the folk tradition the sisters grew up on and sails it into wilder waters... Folk's storytelling tradition is still very much at the heart of this album. But what thrills here is the sense of scale at play in the music, the unrushed, easeful way the musicians stretch into songs, let them linger without ever overstaying their welcome. That and the earthy humanity of the sisters' voices." However, The Observer's Neil Spencer bucked the trend, giving the album three stars, and criticising the "ambitious but lumbering orchestration... Two instrumentals eschew the group’s strength; more voices please".
Memory Box and Archive Treasures 2005–2015Edit
In December 2015 they released Memory Box, a package containing a new CD, a Christmas 7" single (the first Unthanks single to be issued in this format) and other items to commemorate the band's 10th anniversary. The CD, Archive Treasures 2005–2015, which was also released as a stand-alone item, includes exclusive live tracks, demos and outtakes and BBC session tracks.
The Songs and Poems of Molly DrakeEdit
In May 2017 they released two albums, The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake and The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake: Extras, featuring songs written by Molly Drake, mother of Nick Drake. The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake received a five-starred review in The Independent.
Lines, a trilogy of albums about the 1968 Hull triple trawler tragedy, poetry of the First World War and the poems of Emily Brontë, was pre-released on the band's website in November 2018 and officially released on 22 February 2019. It received a four-starred review in The Guardian.
Live and UnaccompaniedEdit
Live and Unaccompanied, released in March 2020, is an audio CD of 13 songs, sung by Rachel and Becky Unthank and Niopha Keegan without the accompaniment of other members of The Unthanks band. The album was recorded live at various venues in the UK and Ireland in April and May 2019. It is also packaged in a "Special film edition" which includes a film As We Go, by Ainslie Henderson (who is the partner of band member Becky Unthank), about The Unthanks' life on the road.
The album is designated Vol. 5 in the Unthanks' Diversions series and follows on from Vol. 1 (The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons), released in November 2011, Vol. 2 (The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band), released in July 2012, Vol. 3 (Songs from the Shipyards), released in November 2012 and Vol. 4 (The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake), released in May 2017.
The Unthanks performed the title track "Oak, Ash and Thorn" on the 2011 Oak Ash Thorn, a compilation of songs by Rudyard Kipling set to music by Peter Bellamy. The 2012 album Harbour of Songs, produced by Adrian McNally, featured the Unthanks in two songs, "The Ruler" with Nick Hornby and "Dream of a Tree in a Spanish Graveyard" with Ian MacMillan. The latter track subsequently appeared on the Unthanks' album of archive recordings, Archive Treasures 2005–2015. In 2015, the Unthanks contributed vocals to the song "A Forest" from the album 8:58, a project by Paul Hartnoll.
Rachel Unthank provided vocals and cello on Simon Haworth's 1998 album Coast to Coast and on his 2003 album Taking Routes. She also played cello on Julian Sutton's 2005 album Melodeon Crimes. Rachel Unthank and Adrian McNally provided backing vocals on Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell's 2010 EP The North Farm Sessions and on their 2011 album Kite.
In 2012, Rachel Unthank performed songs in a podcast for The Guardian on Royalty and the English folk song.
Television and radioEdit
On 16 December 2012 (repeated on 4 March 2013), the Unthanks presented A Very English Winter: The Unthanks, a one-hour television programme on BBC Four. This showed the customs that people celebrated on different days of the later autumn and winter, and ended with information about the famous Pancake Race at Olney.
Rachel and Becky Unthank and Adrian McNally hosted an Easter-themed programme that was broadcast on BBC Radio 6 Music on 6 April 2015. It consisted of two hours of music by P J Harvey, Ben Folds, Eliza Carthy, Louis Armstrong and other personal favourites from their own record collections, followed by three hours of BBC archive live music and vintage BBC documentaries.
Series 3 of the BBC Four TV series Detectorists was inspired by Dave Dodds' song "Magpie", as performed by the Unthanks on their album Mount the Air, and the song was played in the first episode of the series.
On 3 August 2018 the group performed at The Proms in Prom 27: Folk Music around Britain and Ireland. Their set included "Magpie", "Gan to the Kye", "Mount the Air" and "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry".
Rachel and Becky Unthank are sisters, born seven and a half years apart, who grew up in Ryton, Tyne and Wear. Rachel graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in History and Theatre Studies; Becky studied History of Art and Design at Manchester Metropolitan University. Their father, George Unthank, is an interior designer and a well-known local Northumberland folk singer in a group called The Keelers, named after the boatmen who sailed the Tyne. Their mother sings in folk choirs.
Rachel was married to, but is now divorced from, group member Adrian McNally. McNally grew up in a mining village near Barnsley, Yorkshire and as well as being a member of the band is also its manager, musical arranger and producer. They have two sons: George, born in 2011; and Arthur, born in 2014.
Rachel Unthank and the WintersetEdit
|Cruel Sister||11 May 2005|
|The Bairns||20 August 2007|
|Here's the Tender Coming||14 September 2009|
|Last||14 March 2011|
|The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons||28 November 2011||Vol. 1 in the Unthanks' Diversions series|
|The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band||30 July 2012||Vol. 2 in the Unthanks' Diversions series|
|Songs from the Shipyards||5 November 2012||Vol. 3 in the Unthanks' Diversions series|
|Mount the Air||9 February 2015|
|Archive Treasures 2005–2015||11 December 2015|
|The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake and The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake: Extras||26 May 2017||Vol. 4 in the Unthanks' Diversions series|
|Lines||22 February 2019||A trilogy of albums with a poetic theme – Part One: Lillian Bilocca; Part Two: World War One; Part Three: Emily Brontë|
|Live And Unaccompanied||15 May 2020||Vol. 5 in the Unthanks' Diversions series. Also available in a "Special film edition" which includes a film by Ainslie Henderson, As We Go, about The Unthanks' life on the road|
|"Lucky Gilchrist" (Single edit) (Adrian McNally)/ "Tar Barrel in Dale" (Live) (George Unthank)/ "Sexy Sadie" (Lennon and McCartney)||30 November 2009||Although sometimes described as an EP, this was released as a double A-sided single with a bonus track. "Lucky Gilchrist" is a single edit of one of the tracks on the Unthanks' Here's the Tender Coming album. "Tar Barrel in Dale" is taken from a live performance on Radcliffe and Maconie, BBC Radio 2, on 23 December 2008. The "bonus track", "Sexy Sadie", first appeared on the Mojo covermount CD album of Beatles covers, MOJO Presents the White Album Recovered|
|"Last" (Radio edit) (Adrian McNally)||13 June 2011||From the album Last|
|"Mount the Air" (Single version) (Adrian McNally/Traditional/Becky Unthank)/ "Died for Love" (Traditional, arranged by Adrian McNally)||8 December 2014||From the album Mount the Air|
|"Flutter" (Becky Unthank/Adrian McNally)||16 February 2015||From the album Mount the Air|
|"Died For Love" (Traditional, arranged by Adrian McNally)||8 June 2015||From the album Mount the Air|
|"2000 Miles" (Chrissie Hynde) / "Tar Barrel in Dale" (George Unthank) (Christmas single 2015)||11 December 2015||From the album Archive Treasures 2005–2015|
|Oak, Ash, Thorn||21 February 2011||The Unthanks perform one track: "Oak, Ash and Thorn" (Traditional, arranged by the Unthanks)|
|Harbour of Songs||June 2012||The Unthanks perform two tracks, "The Ruler" with Nick Hornby and "Dream of a Tree in a Spanish Graveyard" with Ian MacMillan|
- "They may call themselves folk musicians, but it is the strains of jazz, foreign scales and other unlikely influences that set The Unthanks apart from the rest of the Neo-folk movement."
Ed Rex (10 December 2011). "Singing Siblings". The Spectator. Retrieved 13 July 2016.
- "The Unthanks seem to regard folk music the same way Miles Davis regarded jazz: as a launchpad for exploring the wider possibilities."
Graeme Thomson (2011). "The Unthanks – Last". Uncut. Retrieved 24 June 2014.
- Clog dancing – and the sound that the feet make when they do it – is integral to the Unthanks' stage act and to the recording of some of their songs. They list "feet", alongside vocals and instruments, on their albums' track listings.
- David Honigmann (21 August 2009). "Rachel and Becky Unthank's new band". Financial Times. Retrieved 26 May 2011.
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- Martin Chilton (28 April 2016). "The Unthanks win album of the year at 2016 BBC folk awards". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 29 April 2016.
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- Kidman, David (27 April 2020). "The Untnanks – Diversions Vol. 5: Live and Unaccompanied". Folk Radio UK. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
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- "Official Album Chart for the week ending 20 September 2008". ChartsPlus (369): 5–8.
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- Tim Adams (27 February 2011). "The Unthanks: 'We're miserable buggers and not afraid of it'". The Observer. Retrieved 28 April 2011.
- Sid Smith (2 October 2009). "Here's the Tender Coming raises the group's standard higher still". BBC Music, BBC website. Retrieved 28 April 2011.
- Colin Irwin (6 September 2009). "The Unthanks: Here's the Tender Coming". The Observer. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
- Martin Townsend (13 March 2011). "Album review – The Unthanks: Last (Rabblerouser/EMI)". Sunday Express. London. Retrieved 24 August 2014.
- Thomas H Green (11 March 2011). "'Last' by The Unthanks' is luscious and delicate". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 28 April 2011.
- Sid Smith (3 March 2011). "Brimming with material that is as haunting as it is beautiful". BBC Music, BBC website. Retrieved 28 April 2011.
- Anthony Thornton (16 March 2011). "Album Review: The Unthanks – Last (Rabble Rouser)". NME. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
- Andy Gill (23 October 2011). "The Unthanks play Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons, Union Chapel, Islington". The Independent. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
- Neil Spencer (20 November 2011). "The Unthanks: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons – review". The Observer. Retrieved 30 November 2011.
- Adrian McNally (8 September 2011). "The Unthanks get tender with brass". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 September 2011.
- Robin Denselow (26 July 2012). "The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band: Diversions Vol 2 – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 July 2012.
- Martin Townsend (26 July 2012). "CD Review: The Unthanks, Diversions Vol 2". Daily Express. London. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
- Tamsin Lewis (25 June 2013). "Unthanks soundtrack brings life to shipyards film". The Journal. Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
- Jeff Brown (23 February 2011). "The Unthanks celebrate Tyneside shipbuilding heritage". BBC Local/Tyne. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
- Neil Spencer (28 October 2012). "The Unthanks: Songs from the Shipyards – review". The Observer. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
- Helen Brown (7 February 2015). "Mount the Air, The Unthanks, review: 'a slow, swirling affair'". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 11 February 2015.
- Joe Breen (26 February 2015). "The Unthanks: Mount The Air Album Review". The Irish Times. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
- David Honigmann (6 February 2015). "The Unthanks: Mount The Air — review". Financial Times. Retrieved 11 February 2015.
- Robin Denselow (5 February 2015). "The Unthanks: Mount the Air review – exquisitely melancholic folk". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 February 2015.
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- Neil Spencer (8 February 2015). "The Unthanks: Mount the Air review – more voices please". The Observer. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
- "The Unthanks' 'Archive Treasures' to be released 11 December" (Press release). Prescription PR. 1 December 2015. Retrieved 7 December 2015.
- Alex Gallacher (30 October 2015). "Memory Box – Limited Edition 10th Anniversary Box of Unthanks Treasure". Music News. Folk Radio UK. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
- Andy Gill (24 May 2017). "Album reviews: The Unthanks — The Songs And Poems of Molly Drake...etc". The Independent. Retrieved 27 May 2017.
- Neil Spencer (17 February 2019). "The Unthanks: Lines review – national treasures sing Emily Brontë and Maxine Peake". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
- Reinhard Zierke (1 May 2017). "A Tree Song / Oak, Ash and Thorn". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 3 January 2018.
- Reinhard Zierke (21 February 2013). "Harbour of Songs". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 9 March 2015.
- "Essential Signs Paul Hartnoll, Full Time Hobby and Peacefrog" (Press release). Name PR. 2 December 2014. Retrieved 9 March 2015.
- Reinhard Zierke (5 November 2016). "Water of Tyne". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 17 May 2017.
- Reinhard Zierke (12 September 2014). "Coast to Coast". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 6 April 2015.
- Reinhard Zierke (12 September 2014). "Taking routes". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 6 April 2015.
- Reinhard Zierke (2 March 2013). "Melodeon Crimes". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 10 March 2015.
- Reinhard Zierke (30 January 2015). "Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 6 April 2015.
- Reinhard Zierke (2014). "Martin Green, Becky Unthank, Inge Thomson, Niklas Roswall: Crows' Bones". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 9 March 2015.
- Reinhard Zierke (13 April 2017). "Flit". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 17 May 2017.
- Guardian Books podcast: Royalty and the English folk song. The Guardian (podcast). 1 June 2012. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
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- "Mackenzie Crook explains why this series of Detectorists will be the last". Radio Times. 8 November 2017. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
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- on YouTube
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