Release Date: Feb 7, 2012
Record label: Rough Trade
Robert Wyatt, an avant-pop Englishman, and the transgender singer-songwriter Antony Hegarty are, in their way, folk composers, drawing from the same territory as Britain's greatest public-domain songs: class, struggle and identity. On this wonderful live album, the acclaimed British group led by Rachel and Becky Unthanks interprets Wyatt's forlorn "Sea Song" and the fragile pledge of Antony's "You Are My Sister" with spare grit and a silvery deceptive spine running through the sisters' Earth-angel voices. The subtitle, Diversions Vol.
Recorded live in 2011 over the span of two nights at London's Union Chapel, Diversions, and Vol. 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons finds the Northumbrian ensemble tackling the works of a pair of fellow Anglo-eccentrics. Of the two, it's the mournful and elegant Antony Hegarty whose work most closely mirrors sisters Becky and Rachel Unthank's distinctive blend of brooding traditional folk and moor-darkened chamber pop, and their versions of beloved A&J cuts like "Bird Gerhl" and "Spiralling" reveal hidden corners and secret rooms, while keeping the originals' foundations intact.
The second Unthanks album of the year is a thoughtful, delicate and bravely original tribute to two fine contemporary songwriters, and a further reminder of the role that pianist, arranger and producer Adrian McNally is playing in shaping the music of his wife Rachel and her sister Becky. The highly individual work of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons, the band led by Antony Hegarty, has featured in the Unthanks repertoire before, but it was McNally's idea that they should devote a concert exclusively to their music. The project was first staged a year ago at London's Union Chapel, where this live set was recorded.
The distance between the Unthanks' Geordie folk canon and the songbooks of modern-day sophisticates Antony Hegarty and Robert Wyatt proves less than expected. The group's chamber folk – stately piano, string quartet, trumpet – is a perfect fit for contemplative pieces such as Wyatt's "Sea Song" (which they have previously covered), while Hegarty's "You Are My Sister" might have been written for the Tyneside siblings. The album is taken from a 2010 London show, but the Unthanks' intertwining voices – cadent, mournful, tender – never falter and the between-songs banter ("There will be clog dancing!") grounds an ethereal atmosphere.
The English folk revival band the Unthanks have been known to do odd covers in the past, such as an acoustic version of King Crimson’s heavy metal fusion track “Starless”, but their latest release is even a greater departure from their rustic roots. For their new record, the Unthanks played two concerts in December 2010 at London’s Union Chapel devoted to two very different artists: Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) and Robert Wyatt (formerly of Soft Machine). Entitled Diversions Vol.
Antony Hegarty possesses one of the most incredible voices in recent decades, so taking on Antony and the Johnsons’ songs is no small task. The same can be said of Robert Wyatt, whose songs are steeped in the whimsical tradition associated with the mid-’60s British Canterbury scene. Thus, when The Unthanks, led by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, announced their intention to cover songs by both, and to do it live no less, critics’ ears perked up.
The sisters’ voices, with Hegarty and Wyatt’s songs: a perfect match. Martin Aston 2011 On the surface, there is little connection between cherished Brit icon Robert Wyatt and cherished icon-in-the-making Antony Hegarty beyond the fact The Unthanks covered a selection of both over two nights at London’s Union Chapel in December 2010. But both singer-songwriters are unified by being highly idiosyncratic and intuitively melodic mavericks with a stark, intimate simplicity that often unfolds as luminous ballads.