A Week In Reviews... It's hard to believe that's it's been well over a year since M83 released their single 'Midnight City' and signalled their long-awaited move up to alternative music's big leagues. Going gold in America on sales, and featuring heavily on hit UK TV shot Made In Chelsea, the song precluded album Hurry Up We're Dreaming reaching the US album charts top 20. Our reviewer found that, with 2012 now drawing to a close, the French group's party was very much still in full swing. "'Midnight City', as expected, gets the biggest cheer of the night before an epic version of 'Couleurs' brings the set to a close, and if your mind wasn't already blown, this unbelievable wall of noise was the final knockout blow" he wrote in gushing praise.
Away from the live arena and back to the studio, former Mercury nominees The Unthanks doled out another uncompromising slab of their ethereal folk. Songs From The Shipyards is the group's third release within a year, and was initially a soundtrack to a film documenting their local North East England's shipbuilding industry history. Andrew Lockwood took this one on, and found a band in the form of their life seven albums into their career: "The album, as you might expect, is full of character and love" he wrote. "The songs are performed with great care and attention and each note stirs the emotions as it recounts a slice of Shipbuilding history. Regardless of whether you have seen the accompanying film this set of songs works wonderfully well and once again shows what a prodigious and prolific talent The Unthanks are."
A Week In Interviews... We managed to grab a chat with stalwart Canadian pop-punkers Billy Talent, a group still fizzing with energy with their 20th anniversary of existence just round the corner in 2013. David Straw chatted to the band formerly known as Pezz (they changed their name after legal issues in 1999) and chatted of tours, new albums and the US general election, finding the group in bullish mood on the eve of a show in Nottingham.
Diversions III, Songs From The Shipyards is the third album in a very productive year for The Unthanks. The series started, fortuitously for us, as "A silly idea that wouldn't go away" for Adrian McNally. The first album was a magnificent live celebration of the songs of Antony Heggerty and Robert Wyatt and the second was a brilliantly conceived collaboration with The Brighouse And Rastrick Brass Band. This latest album sees the band perform songs taken from a Tyneside Cinema commissioned film charting the history of shipbuilding. Originally performed live, by the band, as a stunning soundtrack to accompany the visual imagery it is both stirring, striking and scintillating.
Songs From The Shipyards, the album, has been altered a little from the live performance but is certainly no less effective. The songs may not be in the same order and you don't have the iconic celluloid sequences to enhance the powerful narrative but these songs are all good enough to stand solo scrutiny when removed from their inspiration.
What makes this, and their other albums, so strong is the consistency of the performance and the overall attention to detail. The songs are all so well chosen, arranged, interpreted and performed that you are left aghast at the sheer beauty of each composition. Rachel and Becky Unthank's voices are once again shown to be instruments of such delicious and descriptive evocation that you can't fail to be beguiled by them.
Continue reading: The Unthanks - Diversions III, Songs From The Shipyards Album Review
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.
Recently I watched Barbara Dickson perform as part of the Radio2 Folk Awards. As she sang the song My Donald three things occurred to me. Firstly, just what a great song it is. Secondly, I hadn't realised how good a singer she was. Having grown up watching her fill guest slots on The Two Ronnies, singing 'January February', I had not been given cause to think of her as having a particularly wonderful voice. I don't mind admitting I may have been wrong, I just hadn't heard her sing the right material. Lastly, and most telling, I was reminded of just what a fantastic version it was on Rachel Unthank & The Winterset's Mercury nominated 2007 album 'The Bairns'. Although Ms Dickson gave it her all, and clearly gave a passionate performance, she could not come close to touching The Unthanks definitive rendition.
Four years on from the bands nod from the judges, the line up has changed slightly, the lengthy band name has been shortened, they've released an accomplished follow up with 2009's 'Here's The Tender Coming' and Rachel's expecting a bairn of her own. Aside from that 2011 sees the Unthanks in ever more confident mood. All the reasons why they were hoisted from relative obscurity and thrust into the peripheral limelight are still evident in abundance. So why should their versions of working class, traditional or stylised songs be the ones that strike a chord when a lot of them have been around for a wee while?
Continue reading: The Unthanks, Last Album Review
4th September, 2015
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