Rachel and Becky Unthank appear to have stepped out of another time and place — some tech-deprived airy north-country lea where songs are sung about bonny lads and people with names like Annachie, Patience, and Lucky Gilchrist. But regardless of whether, in some J.J. Abrams–scripted premise, they exist both there and here, the sisters make spectral trad folk that transplants ballads of drowning, suicide, and child labor into the now.
The arrangements — rich in strings, muted-horn triads, and effervescent rhythmic punctuation — nod to postmodern classical and indie benchmarks like Philip Glass (“Annachie Gordon”) and Sufjan Stevens (“Lucky Gilchrist”). “Cold February” pushes beyond the boundaries of narrative balladry; “At First She Starts” and the title track are downright experimental, leaning heavily on abstract orchestral tension.
The Unthanks’ voices are hair-raisingly exquisite in the most sororal of ways — a fan, Elvis Costello, calls them “supernatural,” but they also sound like Beth Orton joining the Roches around a campfire in the Highlands. They coalesce and then divide, split from unison into harmony; the farther apart they get, the more they become one.