Rachel Unthank & the Winterset

In my travels, I’ve recently discovered the music of Rachel Unthank & the Winterset. This is a relatively new band which can be described as a traditional folk band from the English region of Northumberland, which is in the North East of England near the Scottish border. The overall effect of the music to my ears is a more palatable Joanna Newsom, yet with something else in there too. It might have something to do with that old belief that when people who are related sing together, some special alchemy occurs; Rachel’s sister Becky sings lead on a few numbers off of their recent album, Bairns. I’m hoping that the record gets a wider release here in North America.

Rachel Unthank & the WintersetThe first track on the album, ‘Felton Lonnin’ is actually in a Northumberland dialect, which I’m guessing is derived from Norwegian origins, since that cultural strain is pretty strong in that area of Britain. Otherwise, the Geordie accents native to the North East come through in the other songs, that accent being unmistakable even among the variety of distinct accents in Britain. The music itself is haunting, rooted in a long-standing tradition of British folk music out of that region, yet highly original too. To me, it evokes long winter nights, not in a bleak way, but rather in a mythical, spiritual sort of way. The melodies are infused with flashes of Nick Drake, with a bit of Vashti Bunyan thrown in. But you can tell too that their roots go pretty deep, and that there is something else there in their music which can’t quite be identified.

You can hear the music on the band’s MySpace page and make up your own mind. Enjoy! And of course tell me what you think!

The Unthanks Perform “Mount The Air”

Mount The Air The UnthanksListen to this track by Northumbrian chamber-folk collective The Unthanks, once known as Rachel Unthank & The Winterset until 2009. It’s “Mount The Air”, the sumptuous and sprawling title track to 2015’s Mount The Air. This is the full-length ten minute plus version of the song, that can also be heard in a more radio friendly length.

The song’s lyrics reference a traditional poem published in a book of Cornish folk songs in 1958 called “I’ll Mount The Air On Swallow’s Wings”, an ode to lost love, and certainly in keeping with the British folk traditions that the Unthanks have pursued over the course of eight albums. Musically, the influences on this song are attached to a similar vintage of the late fifties, although on a different artistic spectrum. The connections with Miles Davis and Gil Evans and their work on Sketches Of Spain in particular are almost universally acknowledged at this point, even by the band who wrote this song. Maybe the mournful trumpet gives it away. Or, maybe it’s the ghostly Gil-Evans-like atmosphere of the almost-discordant strings.

The sonic landscape of this tune seems to match the thematic content, even if that might not be expected. Even if this song can be looked upon as a standard lost-love folk tune, it touches on other themes as well that go beyond any one tradition. This song is about transformation. Read more

Robert Wyatt Sings ‘Sea Song’

Listen to this track, a melancholic love song from former Soft Machine drummer, and Matching Mole prime mover Robert Wyatt.  It’s “Sea Song”, a mythical tale of idealized womanhood, with textures that alternate between the crystalline, the haunting, and the discordant. The song is taken from Wyatt’s landmark Rock Bottom album from 1974, his first project after an accident which rendered him a paraplegic.

Robert Wyatt’s connection with British progressive rock, and with the formation of Soft Machine with Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen, was a key contribution to the post-psychedelic Canterbury scene, which also included the bands Caravan, and Gong.  Soft Machine would prove to be somewhat unstable where consistent membership was concerned . But while the band were a going concern, they pushed the boundaries of rock music, injecting a strong vein of jazz and experimental textures. Wyatt served as drummer and singer, that combination of roles being out of the ordinary at the time. All the while, Wyatt had branched out on a number of musical excursions and had made a great many friends who would appear on his subsequent  projects.

In June of 1973, at a party in Maide Vale in London, Wyatt fell from third floor window, breaking his spine and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life.  Before this event, he had written much of what he intended to be the next Matching Mole record, his follow-up band to Soft Machine.  Since he had extended time in the hospital to craft the material, Wyatt decided to put out a solo album instead of a band record.  “Sea Song” was one track that came out of this process.

I don’t think there has ever been a song that is so unsettling as it is poignant.  Wyatt’s keening and decidedly English tenor is at the center of it, always a beautifully brittle instrument .  Sparse keyboards create an otherworldly, atmospheric, and downright ghostly sonic backdrop, which evokes the feel of a lost folk song as filtered through an ambient jazz arrangement.  Lyrically, the imagery of a mythical female sea creature is certainly in line with its time, even if that mythic imagery is also coupled with the lines “Joking apart, when you’re drunk, you’re terrific when you’re drunk”, which brings it out of pure fantasy, and makes it a well-observed, down-to-earth love song.

Rock Bottom, was produced by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, another post-psychedelia band’s drummer, perhaps appropriately.  The album established Wyatt as a respected solo artist. Many critics recognized the album as a singular achievement. It even sold well!

Later in the year, he would also release a straight up cover version of the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer”, arguably another tribute to idealized womanhood albeit in a different vein.   This was proof too that Wyatt felt empowered to follow his instincts as a solo artist in whichever direction it took him. It is an approach that he has maintained since, releasing albums when it occurs to him to do so, and splitting his time with other artistic pursuits and political activism.

More recently, “Sea Song” was recorded by Northumbrian folk band Rachel Unthank & the Winterset, perhaps illustrating the reach of his influence as well.

For more information about Robert Wyatt, check out the Robert Wyatt MySpace page.