Over the last fifteen years, The Unthanks have given us numerous delights. In amongst their original works we have also been treated to their Diversions volumes, a side project in which different covers, traditional songs, and reworkings of their own material have been recorded. Encompassing the music of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons, a collaboration with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, Songs From The Shipyards, and most recently The Songs And Poetry Of Molly Drake, it is perhaps natural for the band to further explore poetry. Which is what has occured in Lines, a beautifully presented trio of song cycles, which The Unthanks have labelled as Medium Players (longer than an EP but shorter than an LP).
Throughout this collection, the musicianship of the whole band (not just Rachel and Becky, after whom the band are named) is clear. Adrian McNally, pianist, composer and producer, shows the depth of his talent, taking these poems and arranging them in such a way that we are drawn through the stories presented, whilst being emotionally pulled apart by the vocals of Rachel and Becky. The first two records also have Chris Price (bass and guitars), Niopha Keegan (violin and voice), and Martin Douglas (drums) performing, whilst part three is just McNally and Rachel and Becky Unthank. Whilst at first glance the three records have little in common, save their poetic origins, a strong female voice is presented throughout the records. From a Hull woman campaigning for safer conditions for trawlermen, through World War One poems, and ending with the poetry of Emily Brontë, all three were commissioned projects from the last five years.
Lillian Bilocca, the Hull woman who was at the centre of a campaign after a deadly trawler accident claimed the lives of 58 men, is the focus of part one. Originally a site specific theatre production commissioned for Hull’s City of Culture in 2017, the five songs give an insight into the life of Lillian, whom whilst initially applauded for her efforts to improve safety, ended as a scapegoat for the decline of the fishing industry. Maxine Peake, writer and actress, penned the words to the songs whilst McNally composed the music. Bookended by two instrumentals, the first a short introduction and the last a more involved piece which pulls together the musical themes from the other songs, the first record shines with A Whistling Woman wherein the chanting and thunderous piano from McNally drive you into the world of the sea.
Part two focuses on World War One poetry, again featuring women prominently, and whilst the majority of the works are from the time period, we start with two new pieces done especially for ‘A Time And A Place’, the commission from Sounds UK and the Arts Council to mark the centenary of the start of World War One. Roland And Vera tells of the tale of love between Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain, featuring Sam Lee singing as Roland and Becky Unthank as Vera, the song is based on letters sent between the two. Along with the poignantly simple Breakfast, a poem by Wilfred Wilson Gibson, the other stand out is War Film by Teresa Hooley, which so thoroughly pulls you into the emotional heartbreak of the waiting women it takes time to gather your thoughts afterwards.
The third part focuses on the poems of Emily Brontë and was commissioned by the Brontë Society to mark the 200th birthday of Emily. Beginning with an introduction to the noises of The Parsonage where the songs were recorded, the record takes us on a journey through a selection of Emily’s poems. As a working museum, The Parsonage was only accessible after hours and as such, the poems were turned into songs during a residency by McNally. The music was written on McNally’s first evening at The Parsonage, and later refined during the day at his lodgings at Ponden Hall (also associated with the Brontë family) only to return to the Parsonage later to test them on the Brontë piano which was to be used for the recordings. The poems are treated tenderly by McNally and Rachel and Becky’s singing enriches the emotional, and often bleak feel of Brontë’s work. The phrasing of both of the Unthank sisters weave you into an almost dreamlike feel, whilst the piano of McNally is perfectly measured to allow the words and vocals shine. As you would expect with Brontë a certain level of despondency is present throughout her work, in fact Deep Deep Down In The Silent Grave and the poem which gives the collection it’s title, Lines, both muse upon death.
Whilst many of the songs are short in their nature, the full force of both the Unthank sister’s singing style and the superb music from the collected band mean that you are left slightly longing for fuller stories. The longer songs present on Part One are very satisfying in terms of giving you fuller story, though Lonesome Cowboy does feel slightly confusing if you don’t know the story of the play. Overall the collection is beautiful, and the arrangements by McNally are outstanding.