Ever since their early days as Rachel Unthank And TheWinterset, Northumbria’s most celebrated folk troupe have exploredmaterial that sits well outside the sometimes narrow boundaries oftheir genre. In particular, the Unthank sisters and theirpianist/arranger Adrian McNally have always had a love affair with themusic of two artists who also defy the conventional – the ex-SoftMachine maverick Robert Wyatt and 2005 Mercury Prize winnersAntony & The Johnsons.
The Unthanks have already had a busy year, with the release oftheir critically acclaimed fourth album Last and a tour with theBrighouse and Rastrick Brass Band that reinforced theirreputation as innovative collaborators. This collection of Wyatt andJohnsons interpretations was recorded at two concerts held in London’satmospheric Union Chapel in December 2010 and is dedicated entirely tocover versions of the two acts’ work – a bold departure from theUnthanks’ usual combination of the traditional and the contemporary.As McNally admits in one of several witty asides to the audiencebetween songs “it started out as a silly idea and it’s just not goneaway.”
There’s little evidence that anyone at the Union Chapel that nightagreed, and this album, the first in what the band hope will be aseries of Diversions releases, proves once again what magicalperformers The Unthanks are. In a largely flawless set, the Antony &The Johnsons songs in particular are luminously beautiful, perfectlysuited to the sisters’ passionate, breathy vocals and McNally’selegant arrangements.
In less capable hands, a duet of the Johnsons’ You Are My Sisterbetween two siblings could be mawkish and cloying (Becky herself jokesthat her boyfriend described the fact they were covering it was”disgusting”). Yet their two voices combine together so spellbindinglyand the gentle cascades of piano and strings accompanying them are soperfectly judged it’s impossible not to feel moved.
For Today I Am A Boy, another standout track from the Johnsons’masterpiece I Am A Bird Now, was originally covered by The Unthanks onthe Winterset album The Bairns. Here, Rachel gleefully reveals thatthe younger Becky believed as a small child that she would become aboy like her slightly older brother when she reached his age (andalso, bizarrely, a dog too, which leads to a predictable but amusinggag). It’s a good example of the avuncular, endearingly down to earthstage presence the band all possess, far removed from the often bleakcharacter of their music.
The Wyatt songs are perhaps unsurprisingly denser, starker and lessimmediate, reflecting the style of their creator. The highlight ofthis part of The Unthanks’ repertoire remains the stately, sad SeaSong (also originally covered on The Bairns) which is stretched outover seven blissful minutes featuring some haunting violin from NiophaKeegan.
Some bands are stronger on record, while others go up a level whenperforming live. The Unthanks are equally compelling in bothsettings, but Diversions Volume 1 isn’t quite up there with theirstudio albums, simply because it only shows off one of the two mainstrings to their bow. They’re at their best when providing a mixedpalette of the centuries-old music of their native county and theirown unique takes on the work of some of today’s most interestingperformers. Just focusing on the latter, they’re marginally lessinteresting.
Nevertheless, this album is still a must-purchase for any fans ofthe group. The final word is best left to Robert Wyatt himself, whoon hearing the songs here said, “quite simply, Antony & The Johnsonsand I have been blessed by angels.”