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The Unthanks
Diversions Vol. 1, The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony & The Johnsons
RabbleRouser Music/Rough Trade Music

The April menu of last year included a review of The Unthanks' last studio album Last. There we mentioned that the Unthank sisters & company had played two gigs at the Union Chapel in London in December 2010 where they only performed songs by Antony & The Johnsons and Robert Wyatt. I made a guess that these songs sounded as typical The Unthanks as the ones on Last. Well, here's the chance to check it out, 15 songs from these concerts, six by Antony and eight and a half by Robert. Big smiles and a great hurrah for those of us who weren't present. And a most welcomed reminder to those who were there, I guess.

The songs are mainly slow and calm, though I wouldn't call them ballads. Dominated by piano, violin, viola, cello etc. and the wonderful voices of Rachel and Becky Unthank. I'm not that familiar with Antony's songbook, five of the songs are taken from I Am A Bird Now. The songs by Robert are not the most obvious ones. They mainly stem from the latter half of his career, two and a half from Cuckooland, two from Comicopera and one from Shleep. The only really obvious is "Sea Song" from Robert's masterwork Rock Bottom from 1974, that also was covered on the 2007 album The Bairns (by the band that at the time was called Rachel Unthank & The Winterset. A bonus for us Norwegians is the cover of Robert's cover of "Stay Tuned" by Anja Garbarek, originally from her great album Smiling & Waving. It's hard to pick favourites here, they're all so beautiful. But I tend to think that the slower and more melancholic the better, which means "For Today I Am A Boy", "Spiraling", "Lullaby for Hamza" and "Free Will and Testament". On the other hand, especially "Dondestan" liven things up, much quicker, with drums, activate the crowd and everyone seem to agree that 'Palestine's a country, or at least used to be'. Anyway, no doubt the band has moved quite a bit from the folk origins to somewhere closer to baroque-pop, chamber-pop or something.

There is lots of talk between some of the songs, mostly towards the people on the chapel benches, but also a bit in between the band members. It's very nice and the fascinating north-eastern English (Northumbrian) dialect makes it even more so. To break the ice as mentioned before "For Today I Am A Boy". Well, it doesn't only break the ice, but melts and vapours it, too. This alone makes it worth to invest in the disc.

The best cover versions around tend to be the ones where the artists grab hold of the songs and turn them into their own. Diversions Vol. 1 is exemplary in this respect. The songs are not that different from the original versions, still they seem to belong to the Unthanks song catalogue as much as their self-penned songs. If you're not familiar with the songs of Antony and Robert, I guess it's hard to discern which songs originate from whom. Robert Wyatt himself put it this way, from The Unthanks home page: 'Quite simply, Antony & The Johnsons and I have been blessed by angels. If I had to take a single summary of what Alfie (Robert's wife, cover designer, occasional lyric writer etc.) and I have being doing over the years to the proverbial desert island I wouldn't take one of our own records. I'd take the crystal clear interpretations of The Unthanks.'

What more can I add. Lots of thanks to The Unthanks for this invaluable release! Special thanks goes to Adrian McNally (Rachel's partner, producer, pianist, manager, ...) whose silly idea it was in the first place to perform cover versions by these great artists. I wonder if a second Diversions volume means more songs from the Antony and Robert concerts or covered versions of anyone else.

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You may also want to check out our Unthanks article/review: Last.

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