Later this month, The OWA’s personal muses – Rachel Unthank & the Winterset – make their first U.S. appearances since the release of The Bairns, the group’s stunning 2007 album which, in my opinion, will prove a turning point in English folk music. If you ain’t heard ‘em, the Winterset – sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, fiddler Niopha Keegan, and new-ish pianist Stef Connor – play largely traditional material from their Northeastern home near the Scottish borderlands.
But rather than, say, the dramatic but sometimes specialized sound of the Northumbrian smallpipes – let’s face it; there’s little the kids these days disdain so much as a well-played set of bagpipes – the Winterset takes a darkened evening’s pub-session approach to things. Oft-rollicking music-hall piano is accompanied by fiddle tunes ranging from slow-drag drones to pesky jigs, the Unthank’s peerless rough singing, and even the ghostly rhythm of the sisters’ clogging, as I’d imagine they once did for their parents’ friends at parties.
Noticeably influenced by the new-weird-folk movement, the Unthanks bring to the table two things that hardly ever meet in contemporary music: A lifelong understanding of traditional music – its musical sounds and features, but also its themes and mores – along with a true appreciation for possibilities of the contemporary studio and the modern-day “folk” sounds that emanate from it. The Bairns succeeds on all of these levels and more, and was probably the best album of 2007. (See my review for Paste.)
The Geordie lasses recently failed to win (yay!) the BBC’s Mercury Prize – an award given each year to a new performer whom no one wants to ever hear from again. Take a butcher’s at their live performance of “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk” from said BBC televised awards ceremony, particularly if you haven’t had your daily sob yet.