Mount The Air, the first album from award winning folkies The Unthanks in four years opens on a bold note, one is tempted to say a Blue Note as the title song is introduced with a melancholic trumpet reminiscent of Miles Davis circa Sketches Of Spain (although Miles had left Blue Note by then for CBS). It’s a surprising sound for a folk album but The Unthanks have been busy over the past few years collaborating with artists such as Adrian Utley of Portishead and exploring the music of Robert Wyatt and Anthony & The Johnsons and Mount The Air is an ambitious marriage of folk, jazz and even trip hop. Rachel and Becky Unthank continue to mine familiar folk tropes, lost loves, wayfaring strangers and magical animals but the arrangements by Rachel’s husband Adrian McNally launch the band into unfamiliar waters at times. It’s tempting to think that the album is an attempt to capture some of the sense of adventure and shock achieved by the Fairports way back when they unleashed their folk rock magnum opus, A Sailor’s Life. Had The Unthanks continued in the same vein as the opening song then there might have been a chance of this but overall the album fails to live up to the adventurous opening.
The song, Mount The Air is a pinnacle. This age old song from the Cecil Sharp collection is stretched to almost ten minutes with Becky Unthank, a changeling looking for a lost love, only occasionally heard amid the Iberian strains of trumpeter Tom Arthur and fiddle from Niopha Keegan. With driving percussion and sweeping strings it’s cinematic in its delivery and somewhat breathtaking. Foundling is another lengthy song that tells the tale of an 18th Century Foundling Hospital but it cleaves to a more traditional style, piano led with Rachel Unthank’s lyrics and vocals the highlight here. Flutter is more adventurous with debts perhaps to Utley’s work with Portishead, electric keyboards and skittering percussion buoying up the otherworldly vocals.
Overall it’s somewhat churlish to concentrate on the more experimental aspects of this album. At their best The Unthanks are a somewhat unique crew, true to their North East roots (the album was recorded in their Northumberland studio), they’re perhaps the best current embodiment of folk music with one foot in tradition and the other in the modern world. Their rendition of Magpie here is haunting with just voices and harmonium transporting the listener into a mystical Albion while Hawthorn is simply delivered and breathtakingly beautiful.