The best British music at SXSW as selected by 'Mojo' Editor-in-Chief Phil Alexander
The Unthanks12mid, St. David's Bethell Hall
There are those who simply interpret songs. Then there are those who positively inhabit them. The Unthanks reside in the latter category, transcending the folk genre by creating the kind of music that's so deep and so soulful that it almost defies classification.
Centered on the voices of twentysomething Rachel and her younger sister Becky, the Unthanks have been immersed in the Northeast folk scene since their teens, learning from local singers whose influence also imbued the pair with a sense of place. While their school friends listened to rock and pop music, the Unthank sisters found themselves singing sea shanties and clog dancing as they plunged into a lost world packed with tales of love, danger, alcohol, and misadventure. Forging their distinctive Anglican vocal style by floor singing without a PA, they developed their unique harmonic understanding and ability to engage with an audience way before they ever considered signing a record deal or making a living from music.
Indeed, after a number of years singing together, they encountered producer and musician Adrian McNally, who worked with the sisters and released their debut album, Cruel Sister, in 2005 on his own RabbleRouser label. A heady brew of the traditional and the ethereal, the disc – released under the name Rachel Unthank & the Winterset – included material as diverse as Nick Drake's "River Man" alongside age-old ballads such as "Fair Rosamund" (previously covered by Peggy Seeger), while legendary Scottish singer Matt McGinn's "Troubled Waters" (Mojo-esque editorial aside: The original is surely the foundation for Rod Stewart's "Sailing"?!) is rendered en famille with Rachel and Becky's parents joining in.
The reaction to the album was instantaneous. Mojo's folk columnist Colin Irwin declared it his album of the year and demand outstripped demand. Expectancy around the sisters' second LP, The Bairns, was therefore high, and with a clutch of awards under their collective belt and a little more production cash, they produced an album that outstripped their debut by serving up visions bleak and mesmerizing, tender and terrifying in equal measure. Becky's rendition of Robert Wyatt's "Sea Song" and the incantation of "I Wish" remain outstanding moments on an album that made fans of everyone from Radiohead to Robert Plant.
And so to the Unthanks' latest offering: Here's the Tender Coming. It's the first album released under the sisters' joint name now that Becky has elected to pursue a full-time singing career. It's also the first album on which McNally (now Mr. Rachel Unthank) has been credited with a playing role alongside longstanding member Niopha Keegan, herself a key member of the group. A warmer and lusher work, it seals the Unthanks' reputation as an act with few peers.
For this visit to South by Southwest, the Unthanks are in good company, gracing a night billed as Looking for a New England and inspired by co-presenters fRoots magazine. From Trembling Bells' psych-folk to Jim Moray's boundary-shattering approach, the six-act bill presents a broad spectrum of today's British folk scene. A scene which proves without a doubt that, figuratively speaking, "folk" is no longer a four-letter word.
Four More 'Mojo' Brit Picks for Friday:
Band of Skulls, 8pm, Beauty Bar/Palm Door
John Smith, 10pm, the Ale House
Gemma Ray, 11pm, Creekside at Hilton Garden Inn
Thee Vicars, 12mid, Habana Calle 6 Patio