The Unthanks


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The second album from the Unthanks (third if you include the early effort they recorded with a different lineup as Rachel Unthank & the Winterset), Last is a striking fusion of British folk music with austere, arty pop, featuring adventurous arrangements and dynamics that recall acts like Tindersticks, Sufjan Stevens, and American Music Club. The vocals by Rachel Unthank and her sister Becky Unthank are beautiful and executed with an impressive skill and unaffected emotional force, and the spare but powerful arrangements, usually built around piano and a small string section, give this music a subtle majesty, dramatically forceful without grandstanding. The group has gathered a diverse range of material for these sessions, including traditional British folk numbers, songs by contemporary songwriters ranging from Jon Redfern to Tom Waits, and even a cover of King Crimson's "Starless," but the Unthanks manage to make all of it sound like their own work, transforming these ten songs into a seamless whole as the often dour tones of the tunes cohere into something dark yet strangely gorgeous. With the measured tempos, subtle musical backings, and ethereal vocals by the Unthank sisters, Last suggests British folk's answer to Low's Secret Name, but just as on that fine album, this is music that doesn't wallow in sadness or troubled moods for its own sake, but as an exploration of how the tragic often carries the same weight as the joyous in the human heart. Last is not the sort of music you'll want to play at a party on a Friday night, but if you're looking for the proper accompaniment as you ponder life's twists and turns on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the Unthanks will give you all the deeply shaded wisdom you could use.

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