In many aspects, The Unthanks are the best band the Brontë Society could have chosen to give voice to Emily Brontë’s little-known poems. To celebrate the moor-wandering Yorkshire author’s 200th birthday, lead singers and sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, together with their producer and pianist Adrian McNally, were invited to use Emily’s original piano in her home in Haworth and record ten songs that shed new light on the Victorian writer’s work. With ten LPs steeped in predominantly North-East English lore, the band rise to their task with the goose bumps-inducing vocals and dark piano arrangements all fans love – although as their performance in Edinburgh’s The Queen’s Hall shows, it’s a hell of a task.
Aptly opening for a writer-inspired tour, the Unthanks’ supporting act The Bookshop Band are not only based in Scotland’s book town Wigtown but also sing songs inspired by books (try to top that). Combining cello, ukulele and guitar with a disarming troubadour’s charm, bandmates Ben Please and glass pearl-voiced Beth Porter’s repertoire consists of whimsical, immediately heart-warming songs you want to go and hum to your family.
As the Unthanks come on stage in bordeaux dresses, the lighting changes to a more dramatic, somewhat gothic glow that appropriately feels a bit like sitting around a Victorian fireside. Becky and Rachel are irresistibly charismatic: they lose the thread as they talk to the audience, share some Brontë Museum gossip (Becky, pregnant at the time of recording, was baffled when the staff got excited she might give birth on Emily’s sofa) and are not the least bit awkward about appearing cool – as McNally starts the first chords of a new song, Rachel interrupts him with, “Ah, I started thinking of something else; can we start again?”. These girls are so likable you want to take them home for some Scrabble and wine.
But turning Emily’s poems into songs is not a bed of roses. ‘Just misery’ is McNally’s laconic, tongue-in-cheek comment on the content. The cumbersome, graves-and-dungeons-dotted language with lines like “rivers their banks in the jubilee rending” or “I’ve seen thy spirit bending in fond idolatry” doesn’t roll of the tongue easily – it feels like hard work and doesn’t make a very palatable listening experience. What makes it still a little harder are McNally’s slightly bloodless compositions, whose combination of wailing low chords, tinkling high notes and horse trot rhythms might be appropriate to the subject matter but make all Brontë songs sound like one continuous medley of glum. Or was this the goal? But every now and then, a sudden turn of Becky’s and Rachel’s simply beautiful, soft-scratch voices fishes you out of the sonic bog back into your seat.
As soon as the band moves on to songs from past albums, it’s like a switch has been flicked: the conceptual stiffness makes room for songs of more flesh and blood and even McNally’s arrangements liven up. The sisters bob along to their sea shanty Old Billy Riley and Becky’s solo Night is my Friend (written by Nick Drake’s mum Molly) is a sweet little gem without frills about loneliness. What Can A Song Do To You (another one by Molly) is a warm bedtime lullaby and reminds you of those enveloping credit songs from the days when Disney was still good. Thanks to the juxtaposing warmth of this second half, post-gig autumnal Edinburgh felt much less of a Victorian funeral than it could’ve done.
The Unthanks tour across the UK and Ireland until 4th November 2019.