Two years in the making, the newly-released album by British contemporary folk band The Unthanks is a majestic collection. If all the lyrics are still curated from old poetry and song collections, learnt from other singers or newly written in the mode of traditional ballads, the overall sound of Mount the Air (2015) points to modern orchestral pop with piano, swirling strings and a brass section. But at all times, the music of The Unthanks retains its emotional lift and remains rooted in the magic realism of their native Northumberland.

The Unthanks - Mount the Air (2015)
The Unthanks – Mount the Air (2015)

The transmogrification process (the act of changing into a different form or appearance) evoked in the title track mirrors to a certain extent the transformation the short little song went through during the conception of the album. Researching new material for their next record, Becky Unthank went to the Cecil Sharp House in London and came across “I’ll mount the air” in a collection called “The Dorset Book of Folk Songs” published in 1958:

I’ll mount the air on swallow’s wings
To find my dearest dear.
And if I lose my labour
And cannot find him there.
I quickly will become a fish
To search the roaring sea;
I love my love because I know
My lover he loves me.

With an acknowledged reference to the work of composer and arranger Gil Evans and with additional new lyrics, the “little ditty” morphed into a grandiose 10mn-long opening track featuring the trumpet of Tom Arthurs and a 13 piece ensemble beautifully orchestrated by pianist, band member and producer of The Unthanks Adrian McNally.

The ten minutes … it’s just a love letter to it really […] and why my love of “Sketches of Spain” by Miles Davis came to the fore at this point for a Dorset little song I don’t know. Adrian McNally

The official video was released as a 4’30” radio edit, but the full-length version can be heard here.

There is also a sense that recording for the first time in their own Northumberland studio gave The Unthanks complete artistic freedom, unleashing the liberating impetus to experiment creatively with the long form (“Fondling” is the second 10mn-long song on the album) or complex arrangements with even a nod to Portishead on “Flutter” for instance.

There are quieter moments too with two instrumentals by violin player Niopha Keegan and guitar player Chris Price as well as a superb 3-part harmony variation on the “one for sorrow” nursery rhyme only sustained by the drone of the harmonium.

Like on every other Unthanks album, most songs are delivered with a constant down-tempo rhythm, always leaving plenty of space for the stories to unfold and the voices of Rachel and Becky Unthank to breathe.

Mount the Air was released in February 2015 on RabbleRouser Music.