This thoughtful folk collection – an English teacher’s dream – features supremely intelligent and moving content bathed in simplicity and atmosphere, often from a female perspective.
Label: Rabble Rouser
Time: 5, 6, 10 tracks / 22, 21, 33 minutes
Rachel and Becky Unthank are skilled at singing, rather than writing, so the world of poets is their oyster. This set of three separately-commissioned “medium-players” (available as individual discs or as one neat set in a beautiful package) offers lines about Lillian Bilocca (pt. 1) and lines from war poets (pt. 2) and Emily Brontë (pt.3). The trilogy is named after one of the Brontë poems.
The ‘lines’ in Part One were written by actor / writer Maxine Peake for “The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca” set in various rooms of Hull’s grand Guildhall, about Bilocca’s response to the town’s Triple Trawler Disaster of 1968 in which 58 men lost their lives.
Peake’s play contrasted the splendour of the trawler-owners’ annual Silver Cod celebration with the harsh lives of the trawlermen’s wives. The show came top of audience feedback ratings for all events commissioned by Hull City of Culture and the Unthanks’ music was a core part of the play.
Bilocca’s story is well worth telling. She successfully campaigned to make the work safer, but became a scapegoat for the industry’s decline. With a simple piano minor key motif threaded through piano introduction, “The Sea is a Woman” and extended instrumental “Lillian II,” this disc has the varied and atmospheric feel of a soundtrack as it gives sonic impressions of the story, designed to complement the physical drama.
Taking nearly five minutes to cover just eight lines of “Lonesome Cowboy” – and even without the apposite lines reflecting trawlermen’s absence from home (“women... I wave them all goodbye”) – the song bathes in a resonant mood on Fender Rhodes not unlike Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.”
Part Two features poems and letters from the First World War. It’s often a poignant topic, but this disc is deeply, deeply so, particularly in tracks like the tear-inducing “War Film” and Siegfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches.”
It opens with “Roland and Vera,” inspired by letters between frontline soldier Roland Leighton and pacifist nurse Vera Brittain. Roland was due to come home shortly after Christmas, but was shot on the 23rd December, aged 20. Writer Sam Lee takes the role of Roland and Becky Unthank ‘plays’ Vera.
Coincidentally, the piano for Part Two was recorded using the very instrument that Holst wrote The Planets on during that war. More deliberately, the piano used in Part Three is the actual one from Brontë’s Parsonage, recorded after hours at the house that is now a museum of the sisters’ work. It’s not hard to catch its squeaky pedals.
Commissioned by the Brontë Society to mark Emily’s 200th birthday, the disc features ten poems set to music by the Unthanks’ composer, pianist, producer (and Rachel’s husband) Adrian McNally. Unlike the other two works, which are enhanced with subtle backing, this set is purely the Unthank sisters and McNally, recorded straight. The Brontë sisters probably sang around it in a similar way.
“High Waving Heather” captures the natural drama of the Yorkshire moors – played to a Tubular-Bellsy piano – and is a highlight, along with “She Dried her Tears” and the title track, where the instrument ripples behind the words. Even after seven minutes, it refuses to outstay its welcome.
However, a couple of tracks do. It may be because the poems are written in a consistent metre without choruses that they can tend toward dirge in places, aided by some very bleak and melancholy words.
Overall, the thoughtful collection – an English teacher’s dream – features highly moving and supremely intelligent content, bathed in simplicity and atmosphere. The sisters’ singing is soft, their accents warming the words. You might expect the Brontë disc to be the highlight, but each disc offers something of its own. If you’re getting one, it's seriously worth considering getting the set.