The Tyneside group have secured an enviable position among British folk acts: beloved of the faithful but recognisable to casual listeners. Much is in part down to the distinctive sibling harmonies of sisters Rachel and Becky and to the Northumbrian tradition they champion, be it tales of Royal Navy press gangs or tributes to the region’s industrial past; here, for example, Rachel has an original song called The Isabella Colliery Coke Ovens. The group have played their hand cannily in other ways, bringing ambitious arrangements to their work – an outing with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra included – and exploring so-called “Diversions” – albums of songs of the shipyard, Robert Wyatt, Molly Drake; another with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band – plus soundtracks for revamped children’s TV favourite Worzel Gummidge.
The Unthanks don’t falter on what is their first “proper” album in seven years, though the nine minutes of the Sandgate Dandling Song, a Victorian ballad about domestic violence, inclines to the ponderous. They are better when airborne, as on The Old News or Royal Blackbird, a Jacobite song given a lively violin arrangement. The much sung Waters of Tyne is an obvious standout, as is the title track, which has become an anthem on the group’s ongoing tour.