Sing Out! Review | THE UNTHANKS: Diversions Vol. 1 (Rough Trade 5112): by Bill Snyder
By Bill Snyder | Sept 2012
The Unthanks have always played loose with the folk traditions of their native Northumberland, England. Though their intricate chamber-like arrangements transform folk repertoire into something uniquely Unthank, they seem to reveal each song’s essence in the process.
On Diversions Vol. 1, they tackle the work of Antony Hegarty (Antony & The Johnsons) and Soft Machine cofounder Robert Wyatt in much the same way, dramatically reinterpreting each song and drilling down to its heart. There are no attempts to make these “folk songs,” and even the intricate vocal interplay between sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank loses much of its Celtic lilt.
Hegarty’s songs are sparse and filled with longing. The band treats them delicately, focusing on piano, and vocal-centric arrangements fleshed out by strings. It’s all about intimacy. Notably, “Man is the Baby” captures the struggle of the spirit’s need to soar with such intimacy it could have been performed in a living room. The show stopping “Today I Am a Boy” seems like its response as the sisters’ harmony do soar, with beauty and strength that invoke shudders if not tears.
Wyatt’s songs require a bigger sound, and the band steps up. “Dondestan” takes a trumpet melody and punctuates it with Rachel and Becky’s clogs creating the Northumberland equivalent of a hoedown — so energetic you’re hooked before realizing it’s a plea for displaced Palestinians.
“Sea Song” (the album’s highpoint) is cryptic, poetic and elegiac. Stripped largely to piano, accordion and Becky’s vocals, it taps a romantic sorrow, but ends with the entrance of violin and building harmonies: a hint of redemption.
This is truly a diversion from The Unthanks’ canon. Those looking for a folk album should probably pass. For those who have been transfixed by the band’s interpretations, arrangements, and vocal harmonies, though, it’s definitely a welcome diversion.