Speakers Push Air

December 30, 2007, 9:39 pm
Filed under: 2007 Top 20

Since a folk album heading my 2007 chart would once have seemed as unlikely as Bono making Man Of The Year, I should probably qualify things. On the whole, and with a very small number of exceptions, I really don’t like folk music, and particularly English folk music. I find most of it dusty and dry and mannered and dull, no matter how much people tell me it’s thriving and vital and honest and alive. Worst of all is any attempt at some folk fusion project (if I see the names McCarthy and Zephaniah on the same bill, for instance, I know something horrible is happening). I’m not even keen on all this Banhardt, Espers, Vespers blah blah blah acid folk boom nonsense. The odd act makes the grade (true of most genres, I guess) and sometimes – in this instance, perhaps Joanna Newsom is the key example – an artist totally transcends any genre-based silliness.

So. On the day after my birthday this year, my girlfriend cooked me a lovely post-birthday lunch and we sat, hungover and happy, in our kitchen, munching a Pieminister pie (the wild mushroom and asparagus, since you ask) and listening to Smart Bob on BBC Radio London. He had a folk act in session on the show, and they did an acapella song live. By the time the song finished, I was close to tears, and when I looked up, my girlfriend was flat-out sobbing. And that’s when I discovered Rachel Unthank & The Winterset.

Not long after, we got tickets to some fairly low-key folk club in Islington (booked, I suspect, before the music press really got behind them). I was hesistant about the whole thing, to be honest, and sure enough, it was mostly horrible, reinforcing all the things I hate about the folk scene. The evangelical, thumbs-in-belt loops heartiness of the posh twat running it; the dreadful support slot – the kind of guy who makes James Taylor seem like Boyd Rice; the self-congratulatory smugness. Our friend did a stunning open mic slot on her hurdy gurdy (honestly!) and went down a storm, but other than that I hated the whole experience, pretty much.

And then the Winterset came on and performed in a manner quite unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Genuinely intimate and unassuming and chatty between songs, but utterly spellbinding and focussed during them. Rachel and her sister Becky – the one perky and confident, the other quite melancholy and diffident, but both with rich wonderful Northumbrian voices (I’m sitting writing this now in a house a short walk from the Northumbrian village the sisters grew up in), an excellent violinist and a pianist who also arranges a lot of the material, writes some songs and has a fantastic line in end-of-the-pier banter.

By the 3rd song, people were in pieces all round us. By the end, I thought the floor would give from the stamping and cheering and general ecstatic reactions they were getting. I ran into an old, old friend at the gig who tried to convince me there was lots more folk music out there this good, and I really should check out the other names he suggested some time soon. But to me, what makes the Winterset stand out is that somehow they’ve managed to produce something that is really traditional, really true to its origins, but not crippled by them; that has managed to incorporate modern songwriting and styles without watering down what they’re doing. Treading that fine line seems beyond almost anyone else I’ve encountered on that scene, but I’d love to be proved wrong…

Strangely, there are a couple of songs on this record I actively dislike – meandering, pointless little exercises in not much. But the rest of the album is so heartbreaking and uplifting and beautiful and full of wonder that The Bairns still makes the top spot. From a medley of proper ‘hey nonny’ folk songs (complete with clog dance) to a Robert Wyatt cover and a Bonnie Prince Billy snippet, there’s a real range here but it’s all still rooted in the same thing – two fantastic voices and some simple instrumentation. As with the STFU album, this one is worth two tracks I think – the first an arrangement of a fairly well-know (apparently) folk song about domestic violence, the second the aforementioned Wyatt cover. If these don’t do it for you – regardless of any misgivings you might have about folk music in general – you should be shot in the street like a diseased dog. Happy Xmas.

Rachel Unthank & The Winterset – Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk

Rachel Unthank & The Winterset – Sea Song
from the album The Bairns (EMI Records)

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

i’ll have to cancel my booking at the brixton academy for my show of kazoo based folktronica with benjamin zephania now……

thankyou so much for your recent top of the dubpops, it’s been really nice reading them.

Comment by Matthew McCarthy

Aw, cheers. Enjoyed it too.. Now I can get back to being random.. 🙂

Comment by dubversion

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