Self-confessed ‘miserable buggers’, The Unthanks revel in an emotional space that is doleful, downcast and frequently downhearted. 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.
Creating such a sustained, immersive reverie is possible not only because of the choice of songs, but the sparse, intensely focussed production and some stunningly imaginative, minimalist-style arrangements that John Adams would be proud of. The strings have an icy, autumnal countenance about them, and its against their chilled and often foreboding presence, that the voices of Rachel and Becky radiate warmth and compassion.
The Unthanks have always embraced interpretations of material usually considered to be outside the folk tradition - Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song from their Mercury Prize-nominated The Bairns (2007) being a case in point. Here, it’s Tom Waits’ No One Knows I’m Gone that is languorously assimilated.
However, it’s their rendition of King Crimson’s Starless (from 1974’s Red) that will truly turn heads. A gorgeously judged vocal from Becky, the trumpet tracing the disconsolate path of Robert Fripp’s aching melody, and the resetting of the original track’s ominous bass riff as a brooding cloud gathered on the horizon, is an audacious and thoroughly triumphant reinvention.
It’s this ability to pare back extraneous matter and to stare unflinchingly into the very soul of a song that makes Last such a spellbinding, if at times, unsettling experience. On Close The Coal House Door, they dispense entirely with the busied, bristling insistency of Alex Glasgow’s original tune about the dread human cost of extracting coal, and cast it slowly adrift on an undulating wave of remembrance.
A muted trickle of repetitive piano notes pulses intermittently, weaves amidst a dusty, smoky world through which the mournful arc of lonely trumpet sounds a Last Post-style tribute. “Close the coal house door, there’s bairns inside” - a verse added in the wake of the 1966 Aberfan disaster, when 144 people - 116 of them children - died as a colliery slag heap swept through the Welsh town is unbearably poignant and moving.
This review first appeared here.