Out of Britain’s blustery Northumbria comes Rachel Unthank and her Winterset trio. The Bairns is Unthank’s second album and it is so bold that it almost undoes the folk tradition on which it’s based to make something utterly different.
This is an extraordinary, and not easily explainable, feat. Yes, Unthank draws on material that reflects a deep affinity with Northumbrian song and dialect, but she and her collaborators shy away from any cod notions of authenticity to reach a new space, helped by a series of little ‘lulls’ – including a portion of Will Oldham’s ‘A Minor Place’ – that link songs. The instrumentation is spare – just Unthank’s voice and cello, plus pianist Belinda O’Hooley, violinist Niopha Keegan and co-vocals from her sister Becky – but the colours illuminating the 15 songs (especially ‘I Wish’, a lament of a maid undone) are startling.
The careful pace of The Bairns is reminiscent of a more experimental tradition that takes in John Cale and the shimmerings of Jon Hassell. The beautiful ‘My Donald’, a mostly acapella song from the days of the whaling fleets, conjures up recollections of Nico, circa Marble Index era, while it’s no surprise to find a deft cover of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Sea Song’. Sound artist Graeme Miller’s working of ‘Newcastle Lullaby’, in an echoing round, is also very special.