It would be near impossible for a critic to take one glance at The Unthanks' 2011 release, Last, and not use any form of the word 'misery'. To avoid any further tiptoeing, I'll come right out and say it: Last is a truly miserable album. Sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, who make up the backbone of the group, are self-professed connoisseurs of gloom, and they've rightfully earned that title. The very moment the first note of "Gan to the Kye" strikes your ears, you're immediately immersed in the minds of The Unthanks. They welcome you with a foggy atmosphere constructed of Tim Burton-esque landscapes created by the myriad of instruments and haunting vocalizations that capture a cripplingly somber tone in seconds. Throughout the record there are stories of loss and gain, death and life, and most prominently regret. It may sound all too familiar for anybody with a niche in this brand of music, but it comes with a fresh feeling of inspiration and dedication to story telling.
The twin vocals of Rachel and Becky are often what can make a track go from average to astounding. 'Give Away Your Heart' begins with a rather humble piano and snare melody, but slowly builds upon this simplistic pattern until the chorus allows them all to come to a dead halt as Becky breaks your heart with the simple, but affecting lines that must be heard to be fully felt. The fragile mood of this track sticks with you through each song as they gradually grow upon it, with 'My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up' presenting a deceivingly bright tone, but soon returning to the familiar bleakness with a wonderfully inventive cover of King Crimson's 'Starless'. Each instrument and vocal strain in Last seem carefully calculated to convey a precisely cold feel, and it excels beautifully in that regard.
While not all songs on Last will hit you on a direct level, there are many tracks here which will not only impress, but will completely embrace you in their unique ability to craft a seamless atmosphere. Ultimately it lacks the replay value that an album of a quicker pace may hold, but it's never quite striving to be that album in the first place. Last holds its own in the realm of gradually building and carefully crafted records, and it never fails to satisfy one's taste for a movie-like experience of both emotion and craftsmanship. The Unthanks may not have the claws in the media stuck in them just yet, but with a few more breakthrough songs like the title track of this record, they promise to explode in no time at all.