I’ve been listening to The Bairns, the 2007 release by English folkies Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. Though young and cool-looking, there is little of the cross-over poppiness of Drever, McCusker and Woomble on offer here; indeed, it’s harder core in its own understated way than Drever’s solo stuff, which is further towards the trad end of the spectrum than Before The Ruin. Here is a record which begins with a song called ‘Felton Lonnin’ and ends with another entitled ‘Newcastle Lullaby’.
There’s a real sense of Nortumbrian place throughout, in fact; born and bred there, the Unthanks and their chums are awakening old ghosts and gremlins which lurk in that brooding landscape. The beautifully recorded strings are all chilly breeze and rolling country, the perfect moving backdrop to the immovable, immutable melodies. There are, though, quirks: the percussion on ‘Felton Lonnin’ is in fact the sound of stamping high heels, whilst the traditional ‘I Wish’ is enlived by unusual piano soloing. Indeed, Belinda O’Hooley, the band’s pianist on this record (since replaced) and the writer of the album’s only hat-tip to pop (‘Blackbird’), had no experience with English folk music when she joined the band, and frequently provides a tilt of the unexpected: in ‘Blue Bleezing Bling Drunk’, a folk song is turned into a sort of smokey jazz torchsong.
These quirks aside, this album is rooted firmly in the English tradition – indeed, that was the main reason I picked it up following my post about Americana. There are songs here about the Regalities and Liberties of Hexhamshire, whaling, and fragments from the Northumbran Minstrelsy. What’s most interesting is how strange a lot of this music sounds. Famously, country music is seen to be drawn from the Old, Weird America. But Nashville’s commandeering of the genre led to many of these unusual edges being smoothed away, even in the rougher work of later revivalists and alt.country artists (Gillian Welch is often accused of representing ‘Hollywood Appalachia’, whilst Ryan Adams would never touch a sentimental lament about how sweet his old mom was). English folk’s lack of a comparable commercia dynamic has left it still gnarled and characterful.
There are Irish influences in this music, too (like Kitty, Daisy and Lewis, the Unthanks are strongly backed by their musician parents, and their father is from Ireland), but even in the harmonies The Bairns is as conscious a contribution to the English tradition as it can be. The liner notes, in true folky style, discuss how the band found each song on the record. This worthiness makes for guarded, but haunting, music: on first listen, the uninitiated will balk, but over time, and perhaps with context, its richness becomes plain. One for winter nights spent inside with a pot of cider.