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ALBUM REVIEW: "Here's The Tender Coming" - The Unthanks


"My father has been dead about a year; my mother is living and has ten children, five lads and five lasses; the oldest is about 30, the youngest is four...mother does nought but look after home...I go to pit at 5 o'clock in the morning...I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose...the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves...the boys take liberties with me sometimes, they pull me about; I am the only girl in the pit...all the men are naked..."
- “Patience Kershaw”,
quoted in the "First Report of the Commission On the Employment of Children" (1842)

"This girl is an ignorant, filthy, ragged, and deplorable-looking object, and such an one as the uncivilized natives of the prairies would be shocked to look upon."
- Lord Ashley, philanthropist.

DISCLAIMER: This album is one of the more lovely things I've ever appraised. The Unthanks pull off well-worn melodies and unsurprising cadences and make them compelling, where they could easily have been cliched. They unearth the dark, trad.arr. horrors of certain folk tales and wrap them in melodious brogues, hoping strings and wry brass. And it's exactly this that conflicts; this is beautiful and abject, dreamy even as it is documentary. "Here's The Tender Coming" is a charming ride through miseries past.

The auld box opens up with a slightly leaden madrigal, "Because He Was A Bonnie Lad" - like Fleet Foxes if they'd been on the Brown Ale - but it sets the period well enough, placing us into thoughtful Victoriana. Folk gets timelessness automatically, since if it weaves in enough universals - love, lucklessness, laughter - of course you'll find the old-moded and the traditional resonating with your life.

Vocal lead is shared between Rachel and Becky, with Becky's deeper, jazz-soaked pipes turning her sides of "Sad February", "Annachie Gordon", "Lucky Gilchrist" into smooth dramas. (In fact, Becky's tones would fit very well in the calmer strains of trip-hop.) Rachel's breathy, rawer tone feels more honest, far more the contemporaneous village narrator.

The subject matter's mostly crushing - a fishing boat disaster; Romeos, Juliets, and economic marriage; dead friends; and miner's sicknesses. There's a general concern for plain and plaintive people that the historical record never bothered with. While the vocals' counterpoint sometimes makes these stories personable, often there's instead a tangle between content and form. Even where they sing first-person (embodying the stories) it can feel like reportage. In places you get the dischord that artistic war photography draws. Troubled by mastery, and by my reactions to it.

Wait; from the above you'll get the impression that The Unthanks are somehow madly, crassly contrasting the tragic and the jaunty. They don't. What I mean is that there's big, unsettled contrasts between the humble and the grand; the personal and the abstract; the tragic and the painless throughout. Half the songs - see tracks 3, 4, 6, 8, 12 - build up to intricate and sweeping refrains. I'm reading this as the intense emotions of the characters, but again feel the two sets of horns locking.

Perhaps what I hear as apposite jazz comes out of the album's precision - "Annachie Gordon" and, say, "Living By The Water" are the most polished folk you're ever likely to hear. The former is also the cutest portrait of star-cross'd heartbreak and death, xylophone and radiant guitar line sweeping us away unsuspecting. "Lucky Gilchrist", an Unthanks original written to eulogize a friend, is powerfully direct in its jazz, almost irreverent - he's said to be "not so lucky"; "camp and yet angry." I can't hold aught against its invention, or their expression. It's partly the strings' fault - alternately peaceful and sanguine, they comment on their songs: "Wasn't it dreadful back then, long, long ago...".

The epitome of the album, in persuasive beauty and story/presentation contrast, is "The Testimony of Patience Kershaw", an Unthanks setting of a 1970s ballad about a Victorian miner girl interviewed by a reformist.

"I say my prayers, but what's the use? / Tomorrow will be just the same."

It's stately and humble. It's fatalistic and hopeful. It's first-person - and deeply strange; after confessing her heartbreaking daily routine to us, Patience ends the song by looking a century ahead in time and giving us all the eye: she sees somewhere where men and women are at last "walking side by side." Well...

There's been a trend in all kinds of media recently to (finally) attend to the lives of those written out of History - which is mostly a story about bastards and saints, and few others. Folklore always took up the preservation and honouring of "ordinary" folk's experiences, in a semi-historical, archetypal memory. You might place the Unthanks in this trend and this tradition, particularly in the way they focalise women of the past, and make them speak as feminism has allowed moderns to speak; as agents, equals, desirers and, as in most of these songs, the oppressed. "Betsy Bell" totes this ideological stuff as well as being the most upbeat moment of the album; a comic, raucous country reel.

You can find opposition in the title track too - it aestheticizes an ill - but it also shows how you might instead present such things in the event of my having a point; the cello drone underneath gives the song - a tale of a government conscription man come to a community - a fitting, powerful menace and balances out its raptures.

This album is wryly gorgeous. It sleeps through itself, and invites you to slumber with it. But maybe folk should leave dreams to pop and nightmares to metal. It's at least possible that the very worst way to be discounted is to be made nice.

0. You should have stopped this whole mess at the disclaimer, which is, not incidentally, the place where the music album review stops and the facile cultural critique begins.

1. Honest? True? What kind of preposterous purist are you, to make music, even folk music about "authenticity", of all things?

Folk is fantasy, the people's idea of the People filtered through dozens of "authors" and coming out wise by default. To demand accuracy or lucidity from it is missing the point. Moreover, most of these songs are indeed "archetypal"; no-one's memory is being impugned, you ass. Unless you worry about character assassination of fictions.

2. Appropriate? Who are you to say what emotion can and cannot be output?

(Response: The propriety of the thing comes, simply, from the subject matter. Here, this is the lives and sufferings of people a hundred or two years dead.

Respecting the dead is not at all a necessary principle - but we might refrain from rendering their experiences as objects of bliss. We could try to not aestheticize them out of consideration.

Contrasting form and content as they do is a great artistic flourish but bears heavy consequences in and above the device.)

3. I engage more with these ahistorical figures as a result of the Unthanks' towering musical "wrappings". I'm able to pay them respect and honour as a function of the beauty of the narrative in which they're placed.

4. I think you're confused about what folk can be.

Take, for barest e.g's sake, Half Man Half Biscuit; they are first-foremost a folk band, this despite their music being eclectic post-punk and their lyrical setting being British D-listers and sardonic postindustrial-street wit. The distance of time that "folk" happens to span, or even the genre it technically fits into, aren't central to what it is.

I suppose I'm attributing some weighty Cultural Continuity to "folk" here, and claiming that, as popular music has spread its claws, this can be and is done with any style of music. Yeah, that works.

It's surely soon enough that the 1953 North Sea flood; Gagarin; Tony Benn; Thatcher; Khomenei; Poll Tax nutters; and even the fucking blogosphere will be sewn into the distorted tapestry of folk. That is to say, into the weird, supermassive-artefact idea of "folk music" that I've talked myself into.