Graeme Thomson

Cast a spell, clear and sharp as frost: The Unthanks reviewed

Plus: Damon Albarn explores another Albion, a place of myth, mystery and multiculturalism, to winning effect

The aural tapestry of ordinary life is made extraordinary through the weft and weave of Rachel and Becky Unthank’s pure sibling voices. Image: Matt Beech

As August unwound, the EIF settled into the cavernous gazebo that is Edinburgh Park, and things began to loosen up. First there was an outbreak of vigorous clog dancing — more on which later. This escalated within 48 hours to a polite mini stampede from our designated seats towards the front of the stage at the start of Damon Albarn’s show, instigated at the artist’s request. ‘I’ve checked and we’re allowed,’ said Albarn sensibly. In 2021 we must take rebellion as we find it. When he lit a cigarette near the end it felt like civilisation was teetering on the very brink.

As it transpired, this wasn’t really music designed for rushing the stage. Albarn’s natural meter is the stoned, head-nodding lope of sound-system reggae; slow, steady, deep and strong. The set focused on Merrie Land, the most recent album by his ‘supergroup’ the Good, The Bad & The Queen, and several songs from his awkwardly titled forthcoming solo record, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows.

The Unthanks took to the air in the end, casting a spell upon us all, clear and sharp as frost

Alternating between sitting at the keyboards and singing at the microphone, Albarn was backed by a superbly supple and unshowy group of musicians. On the two-chord afro-funk of ‘Go Back’, originally a collaboration with his late mentor, Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, they cooked up a wonderful circling groove. ‘The Poison Tree’ was lilting calypso, simple and soulful. Of the new material, which was woozy and often very beautiful, the dubby ‘Lonely Press Play’ and glassy pop of ‘Royal Morning Blue’ stood out.

Loose and chipper, Albarn is these days more balladeer than barrow boy, his voice most effective when pitched low. As a conduit for multiple diverse musical currents, he seems to have recognised the wisdom of, at times, being sufficiently unobtrusive to allow them to properly assert themselves.

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