With Last, the Unthanks’ fourth album, sibling storytellers Rachel and Becky Unthank continue to create haunting traditional English folk songs that reflect loss, fear, heartbreak and bawdy nights down at the pub.
With its sweeping motion picture soundtrack strings and solemn piano opening, “Gan to the Kye” conjures up images of a barren, bleak countryside and lost love. It has a mournful, dark atmosphere, yet there’s a majestic beauty in the ensemble vocals.
Framed by a Louis Armstrong-style trumpet solo, “Queen of Hearts’” gloomy lyrics speak of devotion to family, but there’s also underlying conflict: “I’d forsake them all and go with you.” The group’s piano/cello/string section approach is note-perfect and the sisters’ voices blend in a melancholy harmony in the dirge-like title track, with pianist Adrian McNally setting a somber tone.
The only problem with Last is that it’s front-end loaded; the first four tracks are the most strikingly creative. After the title track, the sameness and deliberate pacing of the tunes requires the listener to concentrate on the subtleties of the performances, which may not be such a bad thing.
The Unthanks should thank Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Renaissance, Clannad and the October Project for blazing the trail that’s led to their success, but they also deserve some credit for making traditional English folk music worth listening to again. With any amount of luck, Last won’t be The Unthanks’ final album.