Rachel and Becky Unthank. Ya, that’s actually their fucking name.
Believe it or not, there’s been an Unthank or two in Northumberland since around the 12th century. If you don’t know what Northumberland is, it’s a county in the UK. The reason it’s called Northumberland? It’s north as fuck. That’s it. The Unthank name comes from the vernacular for a word meaning hobo. My guess? I don’t think the oldschool travelling Unthank family were the happy, jolly, or thankful type. I’d even say that depressing folk runs in the blood.
True to their namesake, these two sisters sing sad folk songs. Shit could make a toxic-masculine rock cry like a sponge. Their harmonies are so tightly woven. They sing in that kind of harmony that only comes from shared DNA and from singing together since it was still socially acceptable for them to shit their pants. Their voices don’t just sound good, they carry a family tradition centuries old. When they step up to the mic, they bring that history with them. These two distinctive, slightly accented, voices swim through the air like a beautiful haunting you never want to end. Sometime around ’09, Adrian McNally joined their unmerry band. He’s now their manager, pianist, producer, arranger, and Rachel Unthank’s husband. Dude got hella woven into the mix.
Once this musical braid was tied, the Unthanks started to get really fucking good. Let’s be honest, lots of sisters can sing dope ass harmonies. That poverty-porn stereotype of sisters throwing cluster chorded 7ths atop their ghetto steps has to come from somewhere. But now with Adrian? The Unthanks were able to take on more daring and artistic endeavours. They dedicated an album to the songs of Robert Wyatt and Anohni. They created brass arrangements of their previous songs. They made an album dedicated to the history of shipbuilding on the Tyne, Wear and Tees. They accepted their history, their voices, and their loves. In short? They embodied what folk music is all about.
Lines Parts One, Two And Three is a trilogy. What’s the theme? Different female perspectives across time. Part one is all about the Hull fishing worker Lillian Bilocca (aka Big Lil), this badass fisherwoman that made the most dangerous industry at the time safer by initiating (and becoming the leader of) this shit called the headscarf revolutionaries. It’s cool fucking history. The words on part one were written by Maxine Peake and the arrangements were made by Adrian. Part two is all about World War I. The words of these songs were taken from letters from women in, or around, that terrible war. For something that’s depressing as fuck, it’s beautiful as hell. Part three is all about the poetry of Emily Brontë. If you don’t recognize that name, or the name of her most famous novel Wuthering Heights, you need to get fucking reading. That romantic motherfucker is a classic.
The Unthanks embody what folk music is all about. They didn’t find some straw hat at IKEA and then decide to learn the acoustic guitar. They dug deep into who they were and sang songs about it. At times their subject matters are esoteric as fuck, but that’s part of what gives their music so much heart. This band could have easily written songs in the pursuit of appealing to as many people as possible. Hell, they have the talent to make it. Instead? They chose to make art. They kept shit legit. Or, in Emily Brontë’s words, “I will walk where my own nature would be leading.” Fuck ya.