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Rachel Unthank & The Winterset: The Bairns

John Kelman By

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In the sphere of folk music, especially in the area of traditional British folk music, there are a number of often-used stylistic conventions—there's a reason, after all, that it's called "traditional. Guitar is most often the currency of choice, with piano and fiddle close seconds. Rachel Unthank & The Winterset do have fiddle and piano, but they've also fashioned a wholly unique approach to material old and new. The Bairns is this British group's second album, and one would be hard-pressed to find a more original approach to a genre—as compelling as it often is—begging for a makeover.

Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Robin Williamson's ECM discs, teaming him with free improvisers, have created a unique stylistic hybrid, while traditional singer June Tabor has found a unique nexus of folk and jazz with her Quercus project, featuring saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren. The Winterset leans more towards Tabor's stark worldview of deep social/political concerns past and present, but with a unique sound at once raw and seemingly unsophisticated while, paradoxically imbued with rich classical elements and at times, an ambient quality.

While the combination of cello, fiddle and piano leans the group toward a near-chamber aesthetic, its occasional use of stomping feet to provide a pulse creates a unique intimacy; almost as if this were, despite the lush harmonies and arrangements, a rehearsal rather than a finished session. Leader/cellist Rachel Unthank is the primary vocalist, although the rest of the group—sister Becky, pianist Belinda O'Hooley and fiddler Niopha Keegan—all contribute to the rich vocal harmonies that define the group. Rachel's voice possesses an appealing warmth and strength, combined with an alluring fragility where occasional minor lapses in pitch, rather than being a weakness, only make the music more real, more intimate.

There are moments of light—the elegant traditional medley, "Blue's Gaen Oot O'the Fashion and O'Hooley's "Blackbird, a lushly beautiful song that's also a feature for Becky—but The Bairns is most often bleak, but still uncannily seductive. Augmented by a string section and double-bassist, the opening "Felton Lonnin is a strong example of how The Winterset manages to bring together disparate elements: the simple with the detailed; and formal arrangement with unforced and unconsidered delivery.

The majority of the repertoire is traditional but, in addition to contemporary material including fellow Northumbrian Terry Conway's moving "Fareweel Regality, the group's stunning interpretation of Robert Wyatt's "Sea Song, first heard on Rock Bottom (Virgin, 1974), is a highlight of The Bairns. Haunting, melancholy and uplifting, The Winterset's poignantly and unerringly human performance, approaches Wyatt's own mix of head and heart.

The album finishes with "Newcastle Lullaby, starting with a vocal round but quickly entering ambient territory. Those who believe that traditional British folk music is inherently backwards looking need look no further than the unparalleled The Bairns; where it's abundantly clear that tradition and innovation are two words that can go together in the same sentence.

Track Listing: Felton Lonnin; Lull 1; Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk; I Wish; Blue Gaen' Oot O'the Fashion; Lull II: My Lad's a Canny Lad; Blackbird; Lull III: A Minor Place; Sea Song; Whitethorn; Lull IV: Can't Stop It Raining; My Donald; Ma Bonny Lad; Fareweel Regality; Newcastle Lullaby.

Personnel: Rachel Unthank: voice, cello (7, 12), ukulele (11), feet (5, 9); Beck Unthank: voice, feet (1); Belinda O'Hooley: piano, voice; Niopha Keegan: fiddle, voice. Neil Harland: double-bass (1); Julian Sutton: melodion (4, 9); Iona Brown: violin (1); Andre Swanepoel: violin (1); Michael Gerrard: viola (1); Rosie Biss: cello (1).

Title: The Bairns | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Rabble Rouser Music

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