Folk song is all about connection and communication – gifts that are second nature...
Mel Ledgard 2008
Once in a while, an album turns up which just gobsmacks you with its originality and unexpectedness. Rachel Unthank & The Winterset's Cruel Sister (2005) was an outstanding debut but its successor is on a different plane altogether: The Bairns inhabits some other dimension in which four young women channel the genius loci of England's North-East into a hauntingly uplifting aural experience.
The band's unique sound revolves around Rachel and Becky Unthank's unaffected, richly regional voices but it's a true ensemble, with Niopha Keegan's fiddle soaring or weeping on demand and much of the power stemming from the absolute conviction of Belinda O’Hooley's dashingly versatile piano playing.
It's an album with a cinematic quality, huge in dramatic atmosphere. Passages of blazing grandeur switch to phrases so sparse and spooky you can see the tumbleweed blowing by. Songs both traditional and contemporary share a commonality of spirit and tone that links new and old: O'Hooley's Whitethorn – a bruised tale of infant mortality – springs from the same well of human suffering as the trad Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk, a tipsy, whirling waltz of a song about booze and marital abuse.
Terry Conway's Fareweel Regality (a song of such moving lyrics and honest delivery that dry eyes aren't an option) sits perfectly with similarly doughty northern material (jaunty segued snippets from Northumbrian Minstrelsy; the tense, dialect-laden Felton Lonnin). Equally epic are Robert Wyatt's Sea Song (an inspired inclusion with hypnotic foot percussion and spacey harmonies) and the unearthly, improvisatory Newcastle Lullaby which closes the album.
There's a real rootedness to this music, a direct line to something old – mysterious, blood-and-bones old – and a constant dance between that ancient earthiness and an approach that's totally of today. While the creative input of producer, sound engineer and manager Adrian McNally to RUTW's work is noted, there's a numinous quality to this album which is deeply matrifocal.
Live, they're fresh and funny and every bit as brilliant as this record. Folk song's all about connection and communication – gifts that are second nature for Rachel Unthank & The Winterset.