On The Unthanks “Diversions Vol. 1 – The Songs of Robert Wyatt & Anthony and The Johnsons”

by Brendan Strong

Album Cover: The Unthanks: Diversions Vol 1.Because I drank a glass or two of wine while I wrote this, it’s quite long. If you want to cut to the chase, jump down to the “Get On With It!” bit.

Wine-Influenced Preamble

The Unthanks (previously Rachel Unthank and the Winter Set) are a folk band from Northumberland in England.  They have a very distinctive style, refreshing for its vocal honesty (shock-horror! They sing in the accents they speak in! With attention to diction!), and high production values (shock-horror! The vocals/instrumentation are well tuned and at a level that lets you hear everything!). The songs they sing are strangely resonant today, especially those that are set in a very specific time (songs about the hard manual labour of the collieries, pressganging of men to join the army etc.).  Somehow the voices and instrumentation lift these stories set in a specific time, and give them a timeless quality.

I’ve been a fan of the Unthanks for a couple of years. I heard them on Radio 4 or RTE Radio 1’s Arts show, talking about Bairns. They sang “Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk” and another song (I cannot remember which, but it may have been Felton Lonnin). I went to the CD shop the next morning and bought the album.  Finding myself late for work, but quite happy with my new purchase. An instant fan.  Sad to say, between children, redundancy, mortgages and loans, I didn’t think much beyond Bairns until last Christmas, when I got an Amazon voucher and was wondering what to use it for. The Unthanks came to mind, and hey presto – there was Here’s The Tender Coming and Last. Two more marvellous albums.

 I’ve been a fan of Anthony and the Johnsons for a bit longer. Talking to a guy I worked for, I mentioned I was trying to hear something I hadn’t heard before (we had conversations like this and managed to communicate quite adequately, believe it or not).  He suggested I listen to Anthony and the Johnsons, and promised to bring in a CD for me to listen to. I actually saw (and heard) Anthony Hegarty before I heard any album, as he sang at the Came So Far For Beauty gig – a celebration of the music of Leonard Cohen that was staged a few years ago, starring luminaries such as Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton – you get the idea. I asked a guy who was with us “Who was that big guy with the delicate voice? It’s like butterflies and songbirds live in his gut; released by music!” I was told this was Anthony Hegarty. A few days later, my colleague brought in I Am A Bird Now, which knocked my socks off. Again, an instant fan. I’ve bought all the CDs I can since.

I will confess to having heard little of Robert Wyatt’s music before. I had heard of him – prog rock friends speak his name with the slight nod of the head that my grandparents used when they said “Jesus”. But apart from Sea Song as sung by the Unthanks (on the Bairns album), and some bits and pieces here and there, I hadn’t heard much of his stuff (what I had heard, I may not even registered as his). But I did some YouTube exploration and got quite excited. Some CDs ordered.

So, when I saw The Unthanks were releasing an album of songs by Anthony and the Johnsons and Robert Wyatt, I was quite excited.

Get On With It!

Today, The Unthanks officially released “Diversions Vol. 1 – The Songs of Robert Wyatt & Anthony and The Johnsons”; it is a beautiful collection, which includes a heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of “You Are My Sister” (Anthony and the Johnsons) and some clog dancing.  Recorded live at Union Hall in London last Christmas, the album is being released prior to a tour in which they perform the set. Tour info here. Buy the album here or here.

The album is divided into 2 sections – can you guess what they are? The first six songs are from Anthony and the Johnsons, the second set of 9 are Robert Wyatt’s.

The songs suit the Unthank style seamlessly. Anthony Hegarty and Robert Wyatt both seem to have a kind of travelling approach to the melodies they write – they follow the notes to see where they might bring them.  Their lyrics, similarly, have a surreal but very direct quality.  The Unthanks take these songs on a journey of their own. The journeys are quite different, but just as enjoyable. And the scenery!

The instrumentation for the Unthanks is brilliant. There’s a range of sounds including violins, piano, percussion, drums, bass guitar, and clogs, etc.  They work together very well – enough to set the scene and pace, but not so much that it becomes overbearing. You never feel you’re about to be crushed by notes spilling over from a crescendo or anything; they are smooth, complementary and work just as they should – providing a stage upon which the voices can dance.

The  different tone in The Unthanks sisters’ voices – Becky is haunting and ethereal, while Rachel has a very clear, straight delivery, and both are earthy – creates a play between them that manages to grab your attention, but then haunt you. Despite the intricacy of the melodies, you seem to hear the voices and lyrics through the day(this was particularly aided by an impulse to hear it all again, which meant I listened to it over and over). They don’t sing together on every song. Instead, they obviously figure out which songs are right for their voices, then they don’t try to force the other voice in. This adds to the beauty: It is always more than enough, but never too much.

My highlights for the album are probably the following (although I stress, it is all good – there isn’t a single bum moment on the album):

  • “You Are My Sister”, a beautiful duet between the sisters, which brings Anthony and the Johnsons (and Boy George’s)  more natural and closer to the earth
  • The introduction to “Today I Am A Boy”, when the Unthanks reveal their family secrets and the disturbing truth behind the honesty with which they sing the song
  • “Dondestan”, which has an English-folk meets Soul-Gospel (if you can imagine it) feel, complete with clog dancing, jaunty, upbeat rhythm, brass and clapping. If you asked me a couple of years ago, I would have thought this could not succeed. They make it sound like it could not fail.
  • “Free Will and Testament” – a delicate, slow song with a steady rhythm, accompanied by a voice that seems to fly in circles just above. Quite lovely.
  • “Out of The Blue”, which starts slow and haunting, but quickly turns staccatto, paniced, angry and hugely, soul-searing hurt. It is a beautiful song that draws you through emotions effortlessly and is just about perfectly executed here (from what I can tell – this is the only version of the song I have heard)

All in all, this is a hell of an accomplishment, and the fact that it is labelled as a “Diversion” will serve to make people jealous of the sheer raw talent that has gone into it.