‘Nowhere And Everywhere‘ is the debut album of Unthank : Smith, the collaboration of two former Mercury Music Prize nominees Rachel Unthank (The Unthanks) and Paul Smith (Maxïmo Park).
With ‘Nowhere And Everywhere‘ Unthank and Smith, both from England’s North East, and foremost talents in their respective fields, set out to collect songs and pen originals that claw at the beating heart of the region. Though Rachel Unthank has been immersed in the folk world from childhood, Paul Smith’s route towards folk began in his teens with a love of Martin Carthy, Karen Dalton, Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, especially their fingerstyle guitar-playing. Echoes of that approach can be heard throughout this album, albeit simplified and merged with a more direct sound akin to US avant-rock acolytes of the ‘60s folk revival like Gastr Del Sol and David Pajo.
The pair’s collaboration for the new project came about somewhat naturally as Rachel explains:
“Paul and I have discovered that we have so much in common. At the core of that is the genuine joy that singing brings us both. We also both have a deep-rooted connection to our native North East, as can be heard in our unfiltered accents, yet this rootedness gives us the appetite for outrospection. I can’t wait to get on the road and start singing together.”
Paul adds: “Rachel’s voice is a rare instrument, so to hear our voices blending together for the first time was a big moment for me. It hinted at new possibilities for me as a singer and musician.”
Co-produced by ‘David Brewis‘ of Field Music, Nowhere And Everywhere‘ features Faye MacCalman of emerging avant-jazz group Archipelago on clarinet, and exploratory drums by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy / Alasdair Roberts collaborator Alex Neilson, of Trembling Bells.
“There’s only three types of music, music I like, music I don’t like and music I haven’t heard yet…”
There is an almost irrational urge for all music to be separated into genres and then pigeon-holed as music that we won’t like because of the genre it is is in. A long time ago I realised that there is so much good music out there, brilliant music in fact, and it doesn’t matter what genre it takes, it’s either music I like or music I don’t like and, above all, this is all just my opinion and never, ever definitive. I will always listen to an album that I haven’t heard before once because, otherwise, how do I know if I like it or not?
Hence the name of this music blog is Progradar and the music I mainly review is progressive but it’s never only that, through friendships and recommendations I have been lucky enough to discover wonderful albums across all sorts of music genres and folk is one that I have a great fondness for. Folk music is like reading great historical novellas but reimagining them as songs, like the old bards and storytellers did in the years gone by and this new album from Unthank : Smith does just that and rather brilliantly too.
The opening, unaccompanied, Captain Bover just sends a tingle down your spine with its sparse grandeur, telling the story of feared Tyneside press gangs, the use of just vocals adds a dark reality to the song. Rachel and Paul have wonderfully distinctive voices that can carry a song with the need for any music and it works fantastically on this track. The Natural Urge, written by Paul Smith, was partly inspired by the bleak, gnarled landscapes depicted by Paul Nash in his role as an official WW1 artist. It’s a pared back masterpiece of a track, atmospheric, moody and haunting in its delivery. It is ultimately an anti-war song with a simple folk melody instilled by the uncomplicated guitar riff. Rachel wrote Seven Tears about the mythological ‘selkie’ creatures said to bob in Northumbrian waters. It builds elegantly with a brooding aura imbued by the music and Rachel and Paul’s almost spoken vocal delivery add a real mysterious, subdued feel.
Rachel said this about the track, “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.“
O’ Mary Will You Go is a more traditional affair with a truly humble vocal performance from the pair. The song addresses themes of economic migration that still ring true today and you can feel the loss and pain of parting and having to leave the land and the people that you love. It is a heartbreakingly wistful piece of music that will touch you to the core. I really enjoyed the love and pride that is at the core of What Maks Makems, derived from Tom Pickard’s poem in the ‘Land of Three Rivers’ anthology of North-East poetry, paying tribute to Wearside and its proud shipbuilding heritage, as well as Smith’s own “crick-neck welder” father. A reflective and wishful song, if all a bit brief. The unaccompanied brilliance returns with the gorgeous Red Wine Promises, the stunning folky harmonies are just exquisite. An impressive cover of a track that appeared on Lal and Mike Waterson’s brilliant ‘Bright Phoebus’ album, both Paul and Rachel have loved this song for many years and really do it justice here. Robert Kay is the melancholy, mournful story of a Stockton-On-Tees WW1 soldier who died days before his return from war. A solemn and yet tender treatment of a sad tale, Paul and Rachel’s vocals have real gravitas and the ghostly music leaves tendrils of sorrow in its wake.
Rachel brought Lord Bateman to the table after realising there weren’t any epic ballads in the duo’s fledgling repertoire and its Northumberland setting sealed the deal. A truly epic tale with touches of pastoral progressive rock in the vein of Big Big Train, it is my favourite track on the album and I find myself getting lost in its dark and ultimately tragic storyline. The vocals have a that medieval bard style to them and the untutored guitar-playing (Paul’s own words!) adds real authenticity. Horumarye conjures thoughts of the sound of the wind whistling over the moors and this earnest and solemn piece engenders a feel of isolation and wind blasted moorland and of weighty, overcast skies. The album closes with unaccompanied joy of The King, Rachel’s Dad was a founder member of Redcar Sword Dancers, who perform the revived Greatham Mummers play and longsword dance every year, and then head to the pub for a good sing. The King in the song is a wren, king of the birds on Saint Stephen’s Day, when the tradition was to hunt the tiny bird and take it house to house in a cage or box decorated in ribbons. It’s a simple and yet upbeat ending to what has been a truly magnificent album.
There’s too much instant gratification on offer nowadays, in all walks of life, including music but to completely enjoy this utterly compelling and masterful collection of stories, you have to delve deep into each song to understand its very soul. Anything truly worth having has to be worked for and when the reward is as truly joyous as ‘Nowhere And Everywhere’, it is completely worthwhile. A true music lover’s release and one that every music lover should own.
Released 17th February, 2023.
Order the album here: