tue 16/07/2024

The Unthanks, Songs from the Shipyards, Purcell Room | reviews, news & interviews

The Unthanks, Songs from the Shipyards, Purcell Room

The Unthanks, Songs from the Shipyards, Purcell Room

Northumberland's finest in superb multi-media lament for the lost world of the shipyards

The Unthanks: a folk band adored by people who don't even like folk

When The Unthanks staggered into the spotlight with their haunting and beguiling Mercury Award-nominated 2007 album The Bairns, with bracing songs about infant mortality and child abuse, they became a folk band adored by people who don’t even like folk. They were spiritual sisters to brilliant mavericks like Antony & the Johnsons or Robert Wyatt (they did an album of covers of both artists' songs) while remaining firmly rooted in their native Northumberland.

The heart of the band being the two Unthank Sisters, one of those terrific telepathic vocal relationships you sometimes get with siblings (for instance the Beach Boys, Bee Gees, Everlys, not to mention the Nolans).

If they’ve sometimes gone slightly too glossy for miserabilists like me who like their music bleak, Songs from the Shipyards is a superbly executed multi-media lament to the lost world of shipbuilding on the Tyne and Wear. The archive film images brilliantly put together by Richard Fenwick covered the 20th century, showing the glory days of the shipyards ending with a grim, resigned announcement from Swan Hunter that they were doing into receivership. “The best isn’t good enough,” said the announcer with more than a hint of bitterness. Subsidised Japanese and Korean shipyards had taken over.

The century covered started with Britain’s navy being the greatest in the world, with the shipyards building terrifying, clunking warships as well as cruise liners, and panned through to the industrial strife of the Seventies and the class warfare of Thatcher (predictable boos from the liberal South Bank audience). The images evoked a bigger transformation from the time when Britain was a superpower and class and gender roles were as rigid as the steel used to build the ships. We had clipped BBC pronouncements, posh ship owners and revellers on cruise ships counterpointing the Geordie voices of the workers and the songs of local bard Alex Glasgow, both on tape and in versions by the Unthanks.

 'You might steal our future, you won’t steal our glory' was the defiant chorus

The sense of lost pride and community was palpable in the accompanying music, which, as well as the sisters, had Niopha Keegan (good Newcastle name) on violin, Chris Price on guitar and Adrian McNally on piano, all adding at times to the rich vocal texture.

Instead of folk songs about damsels and knights on moors, the lyrics featured jetties, bollards, tankers and warships. A notable new piece by Adrian McNally was a counterpoint to the black, poisoned Tyne and was about the romance of the river, an effective Steve Reich-ish minimal tune. One obvious cover was Elvis Costello/Clive Langer’s classic “Shipbuilding”, and while McNally on lead vocal couldn’t match the wistfulness of Robert Wyatt’s version, the rest of the band gave it a powerful, melodic punch.

If at times the Unthanks's vocals can seem overly breathy and rich and creamy, the subject matter undercut any sense of contrivance. “You might steal our future, you won’t steal our glory” was the defiant chorus that the audience was left with. This was a vision successfully realised, managing to bring an emotional warmth to the sad, dry facts of a forever lost, now historical era.

Watch The Unthanks perform Tom Waits's 'No One Knows I'm Gone':



Instead of folk songs about damsels and knights on moors, the songs featured jetties, bollards, tankers and warships


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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An interesting presentation in which the musicians played clearly second fiddle to the visuals and spoken commentary. Perhaps an encore of a few songs from the band without the pictures would have re-enforced the point that this was a live performance, not just a movie soundtrack. BTW, the first piece was very affecting, but out of context I thought.

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