I was looking through a list of all the new albums I’ve bought this year and I’ve come to the conclusion that whereas in the Sixties, I like albums by hairy men (John Lennon, King Crimson, van der Graaf Generator, The Moody Blues etc), now I like albums by beautiful women. Among the artists I’ve listened to for the first time this year are Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, Kirsty Merryn and Molly Tuttle. I think this indicates that, over the years, I’ve grown to love a quieter, more melodic and less aggressive style of music. Of course, some beautiful women make noisy music and some hairy men make beautiful music.
“Here’s The Tender Coming” was released in 2009 and it was the first album by The Unthanks that I bought. Mark had persuaded me to go and see them at The Komedia and their very down to earth personalities combined with their other-worldly harmonies made an instant impression. With their music, though, it’s not just about the harmonies – there are many aspects of the instrumentation that are incredible. Rachel Unthank is married to Adrian McNally who doesn’t really come from a folk background, being a fan of King Crimson amongst others and he provides a definite progressive and inventive sensibility to their music. This is a very fine album with four stand out tracks.
The Unthanks are from the North East of England and Graeme Miles, although born in London, was a songwriter based in Middlesbrough. One of his songs is the second song on this album, called “Sad February”. Rachel and Becky Unthank share the vocals with Rachel enunciating every syllable perfectly and Becky cutting through the smoky atmosphere of a late night bar with power and grace. Whether they sing solo or in harmony, the effect is stunning; the song paints a picture of a dockside in the cold and the snow; news arrives that a ship has gone down with ten lives lost. A harmony of trumpets plays out the song. It’s stunning.
“The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw” is a remarkable song. The lyrics are based on a spoken testimony of a seventeen year old girl who worked as a miner. The Royal Commission on Children’s Employment interviewed hundreds of children to ascertain how much education they received and what work they had to undertake. The publication of the report shocked public opinion and inspired many writers, including Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to write about the shocking lives endured by many children in the U.K. A string quartet accompanies Rachel Unthank as she politely describes the life that Patience Kershaw lived including the balding patch on her head where she pushed the coal trucks. The last verse is heart breaking. “I praise your good intentions sir. I love your kind and gentle heart. But now it’s 1842 and you and me we’re miles apart. 100 years or more will pass before we’re walking side by side but please accept my grateful thanks. God bless you sir, at least you tried.” At Prime Minister’s Question Time on June 17th, 2020, Keir Starmer asked Boris Johnson to comment on the following. “A report last week from the Government’s Social Mobility Commission concluded that there are now 600,000 more children living in relative poverty than in 2012. Child poverty rates are projected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022.” Boris Johnson’s reply was fact checked by The Children’s Commissioner and shown to include several lies.
Back to this lovely music. “Nobody Knew She Was There” was written by Ewan MacColl about his mother. The song describes the invisible life of a cleaner for a rich family who didn’t even notice when she drowned. “How could it be that no one saw her drowning? How did we come to be so unaware? At what point did she cease to be her? When did we cease to look and see her? How is it no one knew that she was there?” The song is rich in the magnificent harmonies that Rachel and Becky Unthank achieve so effortlessly. The Brian Wilson definition of genius is clearly on display: they make something complex appear very simple. The song is enhanced by a wonderful trumpet solo by Graham Hardy and the pace of the song slows, almost to a standstill.
“Here’s The Tender Coming” refers to a boat (a “tender”) but the sleevenotes also indicate that The Unthanks hope that the feeling of this album is a calmer, warmer and more tender than their previous album. Once again, the pace of this song is soporifically slow and this allows the beauty, power and charm to take over. The ability of Rachel and Becky Unthank to sing synchronously is always a wonder to behold. They exchange looks of unadulterated joy as they create something so emotionally resonant. I can’t imagine anything more stunning.