One of the premier English folk groups of the early 21st century, the Unthanks — the surname of siblings Rachel and Becky — present a dynamic mix of old and new, trafficking in elements of traditional Northumbrian folk music, classical, jazz, and pop. The group emerged in 2004 under the name Rachel Unthank & the Winterset and released a pair of well-received albums (2005's Cruel Sister and 2007's The Bairns), before officially adopting the Unthanks moniker in 2009. Since then, the core trio of Rachel, Becky, and the former's husband Adrian McNally, who is also the group's manager, musical arranger, and producer, have issued a string of acclaimed releases, including 2011's Last and 2015's Mount the Air, as well as a popular series of idiosyncratic live recordings that have covered everyone from Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons to Molly Drake.
Founded in 2004 by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, the duo expanded to a quartet with the additions of pianist Belinda O'Hooley and viola player Jackie Oates. Operating as Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, their 2005 debut, Cruel Sister, garnered significant attention from the U.K. press. However, it was 2007's The Bairns that catapulted them to cult stardom. The record was nominated for a prestigious Mercury Prize (alongside the likes of Radiohead) and attracted devout praise by everyone from Antony of Antony & the Johnsons to Robert Wyatt, both of whom the group would cover in their later incarnation.
With a slightly different lineup in place — one that featured Rachel's husband, pianist Adrian McNally, as well as fiddler Niopha Keegan and guitarist Chris Price — they began operating under the Unthanks moniker and released their debut album, Here's the Tender Coming. Garnering heavy praise in Europe, it was named one of 2009's best releases by Mojo, the Guardian, and Uncut. After touring heavily in support of the album, the Unthanks returned to Rachel and Adrian McNally's Northumberland home to record another batch of songs. Released in 2011, the resulting Last earned similar acclaim, and saw the group marrying the trad-folk predilections of previous outings with a more contemporary approach. The following year saw the release of the group's first live recordings, Diversions, Vol. 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons: Live from the Union Chapel, London, Diversions, Vol.2: The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, and Diversions, Vol. 3: Songs from the Shipyards.
Mount the Air, the outfit's first studio album in four years, arrived in early 2015 and continued to mine both the past and the present for inspiration. 2017 marked a return to the group's Diversions series with The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake, which saw the band delivering a set of recordings that chronicled the works of the mother of British folk icon Nick Drake. In February 2019, the group issued an ambitious trilogy of short albums that they coined "medium players." Titled Lines, Vols. 1–3, the set covered the 1968 trawler disaster in Kingston upon Hull (Lines Part One: Lillian Bilocca), the First World War (Lines Part Two: World War One), and the poetry of Emily Brontë (Lines Part Three: Emily Brontë). ~ James Christopher Monger