Unthank : Smith - Nowhere and Everywhere (Billingham Records)

Unthank : Smith – Nowhere and Everywhere (Billingham Records)

The first release from this North Eastern supergroup (well, super duo at least), Unthank : Smith brings together Rachel Unthank, who has a stellar back catalogue with The Unthanks and Rachel Unthank and the Winterset and Paul Smith, best known as singer of Maxïmo Park.

The pair met up after their respective bands were on the same festival bill, and after hitting it off, had the idea of working together in the future. That idea has now come to fruition with Everywhere And Nowhere, an enchanting collection of both original compositions and traditional ones.

A lot of the appeal of this record is how well these two voices complement each other; the extraordinary purity and stillness of Unthank’s voice next to Smith’s usually more urgent tones. Though often heard fronting upbeat Maxïmo tunes, Smith has a lot more dexterity than he is sometimes given credit for; his solo albums Margins and Diagrams allowed him to push himself out of his comfort zone, and his album with Field Music’s Peter Brewis (whose brother David incidentally produced this album!) was another fascinating trip into unheralded territory.

The album begins with the traditional ‘Captain Bover’ and the voice of Unthank alone, joined by Smith but with no instrumentation at all. It puts the voices front and central and tells of the notorious press-gang Captain Bover who was much feared on the Tyne (Smith is actually from Billingham, Teeside, and remarked that he had to brush up on his Geordie dialect to fit the song!) It’s a stark beginning to the album but showcases the remarkable pairing with no distractions.

‘The Natural Urge’ is next – a Smith original – this time with minimal backing of harmonium, guitar, clarinet and barely-there drums. It’s an anti-war song, apparently inspired by World War 1 artist Paul Nash, and conjuring up bleak skies though not without a modicum of hope. It’s a really affecting and effective song, as is Unthank’s own composition ‘Seven Tears’ , which has the unusual subject of selkies. Unthank explains: “I have always loved the songs and ballads about selkies – a seal in the sea that takes off their sealskin and adopts human form on land. When doing some research about the selkie mythology, I read that if you cried seven tears into the sea, then your selkie lover would come back to you.” Again, the minimal backing allows the two voices to tell a story and to be easily heard, there’s nothing superfluous here. Nothing that doesn’t sound like it’s here for a reason.

There are a couple of songs in which Smith has added music to discovered words – ‘O’ Mary Will You Go’ a Teeside folk song with words from Richard Watson, and rendered as a hauntingly brilliant ballad, and a nod to Sunderland and Wearside with ‘What Maks Makems’, the lyrics this time from a poem by Tom Pickard and concerning a ‘crick-neck welder’. It seems only right to acknowledge Wearside alongside Tyneside and Teeside on this record so inspired by the North East.

There are slight echoes at times of Billy Bragg and Wilco’s rendering of Woody Gurthrie’s words on their Mermaid Avenue records (those artists added music to found Guthrie lyrics) – this is a similar project in some ways, but conjures up images of the industrial north where those albums suggested wide open American lands.

Another Smith original, ‘Robert Kay’ is a touching ode to a fallen local World Ward 1 soldier while ‘Lord Bateman’ is the duo’s ‘epic ballad’ (their words!), a traditional piece arranged by the pair that even has distorted guitar! The back and forth of their storytelling lyrics is captivating and another example of how well they work together.

Nowhere and Everywhere is an album that clearly means a lot to its creators and it will hopefully garner interest from fans of both The Unthanks and Maxïmo Park. It’s an evocative and stirring piece of work indeed.

Nowhere and Everywhere is out on 17th February 2023 on Billingham Records.


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