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The Unthanks The Unthanks
Album: Diversions Vol. 4: The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake
Label: RabbleRouser Music
Tracks: 15

The Unthanks' enterprising series of Diversions side-projects continues with an exposition of another obscure but intensely worthy byway of song and literature. Volume 4 follows on quite naturally from its predecessors (an exploration of the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty, a collaboration with the celebrated Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band and a set of songs to accompany a documentary about the shipbuilding industry) in presenting a set of affectionately turned, heartfelt performances of 13 of Molly's songs; these are tellingly interspersed with readings (by her daughter Gabrielle) of some of her poems. On six of the tracks (Set Me Free, The Road To The Stars, Do You Ever Remember?, Bird In The Blue, What Can A Song Do To You? and The First Day), we encounter poems integrated with (or within) the songs; these are helpfully identified on the booklet credits (although sadly the actual texts are not printed therein).

As most of you will know, Molly Drake - mother of Nick, the late, lamented, ill-fated "tragic troubadour" of contemporary folk - was a middle-class woman living in Warwickshire (where she'd settled in 1952 on her return from Burma); over a period of around 30 years she wrote poems and songs depicting and reflecting on life, nature, emotional issues and aspirations, all ostensibly to provide a necessary healthy outlet for her own private self-expression rather than out of any altruistic desire for publication or fame. This body of work was really only first acknowledged around 2000 during research for a documentary on the life of her son when there came the discovery of a private (and very lo-fi) tape on which Molly could be heard singing 19 of her songs, accompanying herself on piano. These recordings, made during the 1950s by her husband Rodney, eventually appeared on a CD in 2013, and clearly made quite an impression on the Unthanks, who soon thereafter embarked on reimagining and reinterpreting some of them for this project. Although the songs don't necessarily adhere to conventional structures or poetic constructs or concepts - let alone traditional folk song or art song - Molly's cultured, diffident and slightly tremulous delivery gives her work something of the feel of parlour song, and this finds a sensitive match in the singing and vocal qualities of the Unthank sisters, particularly Becky. There's a rarefied aura and slightly claustrophobic sensuality, which at the same time due to her breathy delivery feels like we're breathing in the fresh air. As with the songs' melodies too, which seem rather to spiral off into the ether in unexpected directions and irregular metres, again unconstrained by preconception or convention. While the sisters' indigenous north-eastern accent overlays a perspective of a different kind of timelessness to Molly's earthly, universal and philosophical observations.

Although the style of composition and delivery is predominantly gentle, it's not without darker overtones behind the attractively wistful aura of the reflected or conjured zeitgeist; a certain nostalgia and an almost boundless regret for loss on songs like the rather Sandy Denny-esque I Remember are counterbalanced by a cautious delight in being alive to experience what's left of the world. And even the intimacy and warmth can feel bleak, as on Dream Your Dreams. Molly's writings are characterised by their pervasive wispy melancholy, an expressive yet understated simple beauty, that shares with (and passes on down to) her son's output a simultaneously charming and bittersweet, dark and pensive quality. As on Molly's original recordings, the sound of the piano is central to the sung performances, but here the fantastic never-to-be-underestimated contribution of Adrian McNally is an integral part of the sung reinterpretation, absolute in its invention with so many ingenious, musically literate touches that genuinely and meaningfully extend and amplify the vocal part much in the manner of a highly skilled lieder accompanist.

Here too, parlour-folk reaches out into chanson/cabaret or chamber-folk-jazz territory when the scoring is expanded to include violin/viola (Niopha Keegan), double bass/guitar (Chris Price) and/or clarinet /tenor sax (Faye MacCalman) - and of course the Unthanks' gorgeous, if sometimes ethereal vocal harmonies. Some of the songs (eg The Road To The Stars, Never Pine For The Old Love) have the air of coming from lost or obscure musicals, whereas others (eg. How Wild The Wind Blows and the eccentric, slightly flippant, Soft Shelled Crabs) might seem to prefigure the enigmatic charms of Lal Waterson's work. Woods In May has something of the measured air of a Schubert Lied, whereas the extended memoir of The First Day quite literally (and audibly) pushes the boat out into uncharted waters.

As it turns out, however comprehensive a selection it presents (and it includes five items that don't appear on that tape of Molly's own recordings), this wonderful 15-track album still doesn't quite give the complete picture of the breadth of Molly's art. Happily, then, there's an eight-track "appendage" (comprising four songs and four poems) - available only from the Unthanks' website - which provides a fuller context by rounding out the picture and incidentally containing (IMHO) some of Molly's most memorable creations. Here we find the Unthanks' authoritative alternative interpretation of Happiness (which Eliza Carthy had reworked for her album The Moral Of The Elephant with dad Martin a couple of years back); also the darkly comforting Night Is My Friend and Poor Mum with its chilling a cappella harmonies; while the knowingly sanguine Love Isn't A Right could almost be a newly-discovered Jake Thackray opus.

This review has been a lengthy one, yet I feel no need to apologise, for I've barely scratched the surface of this important album; only a more detailed critique of each poem and song could do this unique project - or the achievements of its "collaborators across the ages" - justice. With typical candour and integrity, the Unthanks make it clear that they're not acting as apologists for Molly's work, but have just decided that these songs and poems fit their personal credo of being worth sharing with the wider world. It's miraculous that such astoundingly (apparently, and thus deceptively) simple musical and poetic creations can invoke such a complex response in the listener.

David Kidman