We have had many reasons to give thanks to The Unthanks over the years. The adventurous North-east folk band’s decision to interpret The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake, mother of actor Gabrielle and fragile genius Nick, was a masterstroke and brought further cause for gratitude.
Molly died in 1993, almost 20 years after her fabled songwriting son took his own life. It was only when her own musical catalogue, thankfully home-recorded by her husband Rodney during the 50s in low-fi post-war Britain, was discovered and released in 2013 that we realised how much of an influence she had had on Nick’s brooding classics. Indeed, The Unthanks claim Molly’s collection ‘contains songs extraordinary enough to rank alongside and independently of the work of her revered son’.
They say in the liner notes: ‘Hearing a woman, a mother, from that time, expressing the struggle between darkness and light, so beautifully, with such artistry, confidently, and yet kind of from behind closed doors, is as compelling a listen as we’ve ever experienced. We hope that her soft, sensual, radiant artistry reaches out to you as it has us.’
As the introduction tells us, the family was forced to flee her Rangoon birthplace in 1942 after the Japanese invaded, Molly and her sister having to leave their husbands behind. They were later reunited but the trauma had taken its toll on engineer Rodney, who had enlisted for the Burma campaign. His later recordings of Molly at the piano in Warwickshire may suggest a genteel middle-class drawing-room stuffiness but the emotional power of the words tell a deeper story, pain and regret piercing the pastoral allusions. Gabrielle’s touching recital of her mother’s poetry on The Unthanks album adds to the charm of an unadorned, unassuming talent.
The Unthanks and Drake herself might be deemed too melancholic for some people’s taste but we are offered hope in Road To The Stars and there is a song called Happiness (admittedly I am cheating here; it’s about the elusiveness of happiness). Certain naysayers might prefer the band to stay closer to their traditional roots in the vein of Here’s The Tender Coming, The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw, Queen Of Hearts on Last or Madam on the magnificent Mount The Air. But these are no clog-on-the-Tyne amateurs, much as they love their dancing and their popular Northumberland singing weekends; they are folk crusaders, seeking new territories to explore and boundaries to bound across. Besides, those roots have always been lovingly nourished.
The ‘Diversion’ albums, such as this one, have been a delight; their re-imaginings of the work of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons and Songs From The Shipyards were bold enough, but the collaboration with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band was spectacular, exemplified by The King Of Rome, the finest song about a racing pigeon fancier one could imagine. An enchanting evening at London’s Barbican a few years back is seared in the memory; we almost learned to fly.
Producer Adrian McNally’s arrangements for the lesser-known Drake legacy – the album could have been titled An Ode To Molly –are respectful and restrained. Listening to her original musings is almost like eavesdropping, perhaps through the open window of the aforementioned drawing room, on music that was meant as a hobby and for private reflection; or like sifting through dusty, forsaken boxes in an attic. ‘What Can A Song Do To You?’ Rachel and Becky ask in the album’s haunting opener. They answer the question over and over, convincingly so with How Wild The Wind Blows.
The song is short but long in longing, and so bittersweet…
The acorn carries an oak tree Sleeping but for a little while Winter lies in the arms of spring As a mother carries her child And never knows How wild the wind blows
A thought carries a universe A seed carries a field of grain Love lies in the arms of change As a joy carries a pain And no one knows How wild the wind blows
McNally’s subtle piano, Chris Price’s double bass, Niopha Keegan’s violin and Faye MacCalman’s clarinet are suitably understated with the dreamy, breathy vocals of Becky and Rachel as our guide. The first verse is worth repeating and the sisters oblige, building up to a beautiful full stop, the last word sumptuously delivered.
I remember having fun Two happy hearts that beat as one
When I had thought that we were we But we were ‘you and me’
The Unthanks have cleverly integrated some of the poems into songs so A Prayer For Love is a postscript to The First Day, whose water-lapping sound effects recall Nick’s celebrated River Man, covered captivatingly as an encore during the live promotion of the album. The people of Hull, the final stop on the Drake tribute tour, will be in heaven with those celestial harmonies on Sunday, October 1. The Unthanks’ ability to move and mesmerise is as strong as ever.
In December I will be joining the worshippers at London’s Festival Hall for another courageous project: The Unthanks accompanied by the period chamber ensemble Army Of Generals, conducted by Charles Hazlewood. They will be revisiting familiar material but there will be new ventures such as the intriguing Hymn For Syria. At least this will not be an orchestral manoeuvre in the dark after the success of last year’s concert at the Liverpool Royal Philharmonic. Molly Drake’s songbook suits a minimalist approach but let us hope arranger McNally, Rachel’s husband, can persuade Hazlewood to attempt a quietly stirring, symphonic airing of How Wild The Wind Blows.
There is a simple beauty about Drake’s work which is perfectly captured by The Unthanks’ celestial siblings. Inductees to that mythical desert island are granted only one luxury, but perhaps the singular sound of two voices inextricably entwined could be an exception. Molly would have approved.