Say what you like about The Unthanks, but I love them. Just to be clear, they’ve never been afraid of pushing boundaries, embracing challenges and kissing ambition on both cheeks. They left any clichéd notions of being a ‘folk band’ behind them long ago.
So their latest offering Lines: Parts One, Two and Three is actually three mini-albums based on different commissioned projects, available together or separately, with a total running time of around 75 minutes. Part One was written for The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca, actor and writer Maxine Peake’s theatre piece, when Hull was the UK City of Culture. Lillian Bilocca is another of Peake’s forgotten heroines, one of the so-called ‘headscarf revolutionaries’ who campaigned for improved safety standards in the fishing industry after three Hull trawlers sank, with 58 men lost, in 1968. The campaign was successful but Bilocca, who’d worked as a cod-skinner and whose father, husband and son were all fishermen, was blacklisted and, unemployable in the fishing industry, had to eke out a living as a cleaner. Particularly striking is The Sea Is A Woman, a dramatic realisation of Bilocca’s awareness that, as perilous as the sea may be, it’s the boss men at home who are really dangerous.
Part Two consists of songs written, and poems set, for the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Sam Lee and Tim Dalling contribute to a set that’s sometimes heartbreakingly poignant and Adrian McNally’s arrangements are exemplary.
And so, to Part Three, commissioned by the Brontë estate, based on a series of poems written by Emily Brontë and recorded in The Parsonage at Haworth, with McNally (somewhat nervously, I imagine) playing the actual Brontë family piano. It’s probably the headline act in terms of mainstream appeal and Rachel and Becky are in characteristically fine voice, but the arrangements, ironically enough, are a bit too polite to be completely convincing. At least no pianos were harmed in the course of this recording.
To read Lillian Bilocca’s story on Northern Soul, click here.