Pleasantly off-kilter and yet still lovely folk revivalism from a pair of sisters from the English countryside. “Queen of Hearts” is a traditional song, first recorded by Cynthia Gooding in 1953 and brought to a wider audience by Joan Baez 10 years later, and the Unthanks honor the song’s heart but expand its soul with their uncanny gift of arrangement.
From the glockenspiel’s carefully tinkled opening notes (and note the odd tension the trumpet quickly introduces) it is clear that we are in exquisite musical hands. Keep your ear on the bottom of the mix, as it’s the drumbeat—resolutely minimal, reinforcing the song’s rapt sway—and its bass partner that lend the song its peculiar sense of magical menace, or maybe menacing magic. The interaction of the players—piano, trumpet, strings, percussion—is all but three-dimensional; they sound like they’re playing with each other both musically and spatially. Notes and chords are both thrillingly precise and yet seemingly just come upon. (A favorite moment: the chord that appears on the word “my” smack in the center of the song, at 2:13, on the line “If my love leaves me what shall I do?”)
And let’s not forget the central lure, which is the two sisters’ voices. Becky takes the lower road, Rachel, eight years senior, the higher, and the intertwining is such that they are hard to separate. Thankfully there is no need to. Unthank is their actual last name, by the way. And also the name of a village near where they grew up, west of Newcastle.