From the early days of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset to their configuration as The Unthanks, one of the constants has been the fiddle and vocals of Niopha Keegan. On Diversions Vol. 5 – Live and Unaccompanied, she joins Becky and Rachel as the third voice in a trio focused on the spectral qualities of three unaccompanied voices singing live to an audience.
The Unthanks have never been ones to shy away from a challenge, having covered everyone from Robert Wyatt to King Crimson, yet there is a glory in being able to hear their voices completely unadorned. Building from one to three voices in a matter of notes, ‘One By One’, establishes a high bar. The song, a tale of longing and loneliness, haunts, “We go walking out at night, as we wander through the grass, we can hear each other pass, but we’re far apart, far apart in the dark.”
The traditional, ‘I’m Weary Of Lying Alone’, with the voice of Niopha Keegan singing the lead, establishes the pain of being alone. “If I got a comely young man who would take me without fortune and make me a wife of his very own. For the truth is, I’ll say is, I’ll die in despair If I lie any longer alone, alone.” However, the mood isn’t always one of despair, ‘Geordie Wedding Set’ is rollicking collection, incorporating the traditional ‘We’ll Aal Be Wed In Our Auld Claiths’ and ‘Hi Canny Man’.
Clocking in at just over a minute, ‘Where’ve Yer Bin Dick’ from Here’s The Tender Coming is a song of disappointment three times over. From selling papers for half their worth to courting a girl but only getting disappointing kisses to the final disaster, “Where’ve yer bin Dick? Down at library, I’ve been waiting for a book. Got no pictures, couldn’t read it. Were it worth it? No, it weren’t.”
Voices pure and harmonies a plenty, this is never clearer than on ‘We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed’. There are but three singers, yet the clarity of the lines suggests more. Finally there is ‘Farewell Shanty’, where the voices of Becky, Rachel and Niopha are joined by the entire audience to create an exquisite closing track.
The wonder of the Unthanks is why these albums are called diversions. After all, Diversions No. 5 – Live And Unaccompanied is a main course worth savouring in its own right.