As dubious suggestions go, 'A silly idea that just wouldn't' go away' from The Unthanks producer, instrumentalist, sometime composer, and now full time hubby to Rachel, Adrian McNally's is probably more fanciful than silly. Actually, it's probably more the desire of a visionary genius. Take two rather odd, somewhat obscure, vaguely eccentric but wonderfully gifted unique and talented English songwriters and re-interpret some of their great songs. Each of them, Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegerty, may be well known for their individuality and ability to craft beautiful, painful, stirring and evocative songs but that doesn't mean you can't put your own spin on them.
Rachel and Becky have in the past, together with the Unthank ensemble in its various guises, beguiled us with their beautiful takes on generally more traditional songs for their last three albums; each of which has been a joy. Their Northumbrian vocal lilts have breathed new life into old classics, re-awakened forgotten standards and resurrected charming colloquialisms. The two sisters have made most of what they touch almost their own, despite the negative detractors who may insist on more original compositions. (No one thinks that of Elvis or Sinatra and they were pretty good, so get over it!)
You get the feeling that before The Unthanks even considers a song, there has been more than just plenty of thought that has gone into the final decision. The choice of a song sung by The Unthanks has not been made lightly. Care, attention, love, devotion and the want to do the song justice, to make a credible, worthy and meaningful interpretation of someone else's work means a lot. These are not merely cover versions, in some cases they could come to be considered definitive versions. This task, drawing on as much understatement as I can muster, is not easy. There are more than a few obstacles to overcome. Choose the right songs, arrange and perform them in such a way that they become your own rather than a version of another's and then, possibly the most tricky of all, convince and win over the original song writer's fans.
Diversions Vol;1 The Songs Of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnson's is the first of what is set to become a series of works undertaken by The Unthanks. The album was recorded in two concerts at London's Union Chapel on December 8th & 9th 2011 and is solely made up of material by the two extraordinary artists. The first part is six songs from the song book of Antony & The Johnson's. Although I have loved all three previous Unthanks albums and have found Antony's music to be breath-taking at times, little can prepare you for the combination of the two. It is quite simply stunning. 'Bird Girl' followed by 'Man Is The Baby' is a spine tingling start to the show that doesn't let up. Each song is sung with such clarity and given such an emotive rendering that you are left in awe of their achievement. This is a tour de force performance from a unique band. You quickly forget the concept of the recording, the very notion that they are not the original creators of the material they are performing and are completely absorbed by the brilliance of it all.
The comical interjections: 'By the way, if you're enjoying the evening then thank you, but if you're not then it's Adrian's fault right, it was his idea'; 'You can tell you're a Geordie, look, Becky's not even got any tights on!' show a band at ease with their audience and with their work but even they, as light as they are, only serve as brief respites between each magnificent performance. The moments of levity work well between such serious music, as much for the band as for the audience.
I dare say that not many (even any!) tracks are given the 'buckets at the ready here's one to make you puke' introduction that 'You Are My Sister' is afforded here. Becky's boyfriend may have thought it a disgusting idea but the track works wonderfully well. The two siblings' voices are interwoven impeccably, creating soaring harmonies and delicate duets that give such a fabulous balance to one of Antony's more personal songs. 'For Today I Am A Boy' is similarly effective. The solitary piano and vocal arrangement that starts and ends the track is sure to send a shiver down your spine with its beauty. The 'first half' of the set is drawn to a close by another track culled from Antony & The Johnson's 2005 Mercury winning album 'I Am A Bird Now'. 'Spiralling' is a fitting choice with its more sombre, troubled and tormented soul, partly setting the scene for Act 2.
The prolific work of Robert Wyatt is a treasure trove from which to plunder many riches and The Unthanks has chosen superbly. 'Stay Tuned' eases in and immediately gives the whole concert a different feel and atmosphere. The introduction of the dark and brooding horn section together with a more bass heavy piano score and subtle string section creates a sense of foreboding and drama that permeates the second set. The skipping, percussive, beats of 'Dondestan', described as 'A cheerful song about homelessness'; raise the tempo before a truly mesmerising take on 'Lullaby For Hamza'. Once again, it is the effectiveness of the vocal and the sympathetic treatment of the track that produces such wondrous results. This is stirring stuff. 'Free Will And Testament', 'Robert's exasperated response to being told that he had something called free will', is another highlight of the evening. The exceptional lyrics are sung with such tenderness and understated understanding that the message is made even more powerful. 'A crazy one' is how 'Out Of The Blue' is billed. Probably the heaviest of the performances in its delivery it certainly packs a punch, especially the unforgettable delivery of the repeated line 'You have planted all your everlasting hatred in my heart.' The Unthanks round off the album with 'Cuckoo Madame', a favourite from their first album (The Bairns), 'The Sea Song' and a short excerpt from 'Forest'. 15 songs; 15 brilliant renditions.
Possibly the biggest compliment paid to the album has been that of Robert Wyatt himself. 'Quite simply, Antony & The Johnsons and I have been blessed by angels. If I had to take a single summary of what Alfie 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.' Praise indeed, and who am I to argue? Hopefully Mr Hegerty will be similarly impressed.