In a land swamped by out of town retail parks, slowly sinking beneath the weight of racks of Simon Cowell-sponsored CDs and airbrushed conformity, it takes a jolt of something special to remind you of your roots. Becky and Rachel Unthank provided just such a jolt on their last album, The Bairns. Then trading under the name of Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, its downbeat collection of traditional and self-penned tunes sprang firmly from the vibrant Northumbrian strand of English folk music and scored them a Mercury Music Prize nomination that, according to insiders, they only narrowly missed out on. For such relatively uncompromising exponents of traditional fare it was quite an achievement, and one that propelled them into the front rooms and onto the iPods of people for whom it must have been an initially alien experience.
After a quick personnel shuffle and a name adjustment, Here’s The Tender Coming sees Becky finally get equal billing with Rachel as the sound fills out and the mood gets lightened. Just a little. The past is another country, and as familiar and heartstring-pulling as the place names, accents and melodies may be, the world they describe is frequently a harsh one. The songs evoke images of communities who lose their number to the waves and The Press Gang, and young women who lose their hair and innocence through brutalising toil at pit heads. Love is fleeting; hearts don’t merely break, they smash into tiny pieces never to be repaired. It’s a less disposable world than the one we live in, and from the initial unaccompanied vocal of ‘Because He Was A Bonny Lad’ onwards there’s little bowing to commercial considerations.
This warm and gentle introduction gives way to metronomic clogging, black briny seas and bitter winds on the chillingly memorable ‘Sad February’, in which selfless sailors are mourned on the shoreline as the snow falls, accordions lament and pianos stay unabashedly resonant. Next up is a beautiful working of the Scottish ballad ‘Annachie Gordon’. A full eight minutes of mesmeric vocal work and storytelling, it’s a cautionary story of a thwarted mythical romance that led to the heart-sorry petrification of the chief protagonists. Fathers, it seems to be saying, don’t greedily marry off your daughters for land or money. The Unthanks’ version comes courtesy of Nic Jones and there’s an odd added poignancy about its inclusion, the presence of one of English folk’s great lost voices looming like a shadow right across it.
The inclusion of the 1970 Frank Higgins song, ‘The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw’, based on the account of a seventeen year old coalmine ‘hurrier’ to the Children’s Employment Commission, allows you graphic insight into life as it really was within the communities that inspired and sustained many of these songs. There was little good about these old days; Patience, having worked twelve-hour shifts below ground from a very young age, complains of being unrecognisable as a woman. It’s a song which, if done badly, could sound mawkish and full of jaundiced sentiment. Ever the pros, however, The Unthanks bring the young woman to life, her combination of regret, stoicism and knowing defiance present in their diction. The title track is a classic example of Northeastern song in which crouching, fear-filled men are hidden by their partners as The Press Gang threaten the town. It’s as tentative as a stolen pillow song, but this ‘tender’ has nowhere near as much to do with tenderness as the rich earthiness of the sisterly harmonies might want to seduce you into thinking.
Though the album never really falters, here are there are glimpses of The Unthanks’ limitations. Their version of Lal Waterson’s ‘At First She Starts’, a song about the struggle to find your own voice, gamely attempts a gloomy string-laden arrangement but there’s the sense that the song so firmly belongs to Lal that it doesn’t really lend itself to other voices. The one original number, ‘Lucky Gilchrist’, doesn’t quite hit the mark either. This song about a hell-raising friend who met an early end suffers from too much production and one or two clunking rhymes that leave it less than satisfying, though these flaws do not diminish the impression of the life-loving “wild and inspirational” person it commemorates. Fortunately, leavening doses of Geordie Music Hall arrive in the shape of ‘Not Much Luck’, ‘Where’ve Yer Bin Dick’ and ‘Betsy Bell’ to keep proceedings from becoming unremittingly tragic. ‘Betsy Bell’ in particular is a joyous piece of ribald, where a game, often slighted but irrepressible love-hungry woman bemoans the fickleness of menfolk above squishy brass and quirky English rhythms, ending with a skirt-hitching clog dance that sends you home smiling.
Here’s The Tender Coming is a very special piece of work from a rare and special act; its few faults only strengthen the richness of its humanity, the honesty of its references. Its roots are deep, but there’s not a hint of the fey or mannered about any of it, and easily deserves the same recognition afforded to The Bairns.
[EMI; September 14, 2009]
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