The Unthanks couldn’t have chosen a more fitting venue for the first night of their current tour than St James’s Church, Piccadilly; just as it’s all too easy for passers-by, eyes glued to the bright lights, to overlook this relic of the 17th century, one could be forgiven for missing The Unthanks’ distinctive breed of folk music amid the barrage of predictable tales of nightclub romance filling the airwaves. But sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank still managed to pack the pews.
Where does our nationwide fascination with singing siblings come from? The Gallaghers had us on tenterhooks every time they bickered; Jedward seem to be building a career on nothing more than shared DNA; and now groups of sisters everywhere are transforming solo songs into family singalongs. Audiences seem to emanate a sort of parental pride when siblings are on stage, as if watching their offspring play the coveted role of Second Shepherd in the school Nativity play.
But The Unthanks don’t use their family ties as a crowd-pleasing gimmick. The sisters’ voices perfectly complement each other, and form the basis of a sound that defies the stereotypes of the genre it is rooted in. They may call themselves folk musicians, but it is the strains of jazz, foreign scales and other unlikely influences that set The Unthanks apart from the rest of the Neo-folk movement. At a time when so many musicians feel they have to fall into a pre-defined genre to appeal to an existing audience, it’s refreshing to find a group so disdainful of such restrictions.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 10, 2011