Written for The Music Fix.
Mount The Air. “An invitation to be free, weightless, airborne, to transcend reality, to enter your imagination, to raise the possibilities above the ordinary … To fly.” Well, that’s what it says on the album notes at least.
Even though the new album is their first in four years, The Unthanks haven’t exactly been slacking off. The Diversions series has been ongoing since 2011 – covering songs by Anthony and The Johnsons among others – and in among all that they’ve even found some time to raise the next generation of Unthanks. Tonight is their first show in Manchester for some time (if you don’t count Becky’s impromptu performances in local pubs) and they bring with them the usual ten-piece band. Even with a grand piano and a string quartet the focus stays at the front of the stage with Rachel and Becky.
The Unthanks have a knack for taking old traditional poems, stories, shanties and making them relevant for today’s listeners. The new material is no change from this formula – why fix what isn’t broken? Most of the album gets an airing, and while quality stays high, one track stands out above all others for an audience still getting to grips with the new ones. It’s the ten minute title track, played right at the start of the set, and demonstrates just how far the group have come since Last in 2011. The slow build towards the transcendent chorus (“I’ll mount the air on swallow’s wings / To find my dearest dear,”) truly feels like that aforementioned invitation to be free.
As the band dive into the rich narrative of ‘Madam’, pianist Adrian McNally introduces it as the song named after his wife. Rachel pulls a face and says, “Well, you can tell by my face he’s not tried that joke before.” These moments of levity are typical of an act that feels like family, and are typical of their easy ways with an audience. They find some time for a couple of songs from their first Diversions tour: ‘Spiralling’ and ‘Out of The Blue’ for the many who missed it in 2011. They also squeeze in a beautiful cover of ‘Starless’ by King Crimson. The encore sees a reprise of ‘Mount the Air’ that had even more gusto and clog dancing than before.
If only more could make their craft as weightless as The Unthanks do. Free? Like the birds.