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.
Following the introductory prelude is a song from Graeme Miles, 'Great Northern River', that starts to capture the juxtaposition that is held in the memories of the workers and families. The heavily industrial, very often stark realities of the working conditions and the quality of life, is also somehow romanticised into a distortion of the grim realities. 'Black Trade', by the North East's Jez Lowe, is a superbly descriptive tribute to all those who toiled hardest as they played their part in the shipbuilding process. It captures brilliantly just how hard and unforgiving the industry is but still manages to maintain a sense of humour and pride in their achievements....."Half seven horners you crawl as a mob from the gates into hell with a tab in yer gob." The vocals are flawless and the accompanying strings serve as a suitably subtle accent.
The Rudyard Kipling children's poem, once set to music by Edward Elgar, 'Big Steamers' follows the choral a cappella 'Fairfield Crane'. The haunting piano refrain of the opening bars loop as the vocal layers build and harmonise in a glorious rendition of a fantastic piece of prose. Then Alex Glasgow's sombre song of parting, 'All In A Day', cuts through to grip you with its honest and heart felt sentiment before the centre piece of the album 'The Romantic Tees'. This song of three parts uses recordings of both Graeme Miles and George Unthank as well as part of the soundtrack to the 1973 film 'Launch'. Julian Sutton's Melodeon passages work well to help frame part I before the guitar of Chris Price eases us into part II, 'Tyne Slides By'. The contemplative vocal sits atop the mechanical and industrial back drop before part III 'Looking Back', reminisces about hope.
Having resisted the temptation to cover the Robert Wyatt/Elvis Costello song 'Shipbuilding' on the first Diversions album, because they knew that this project was going to happen, The Unthanks deliver up another faultless performance here. Interestingly it is Adrian McNally that takes lead vocal duties with the sisters providing possibly the best backing vocals you're likely to hear anywhere. The arrangement is suitably sympathetic as the piano notes chime out to back up the oral perfection. Finally two more Jezz Lowe penned tracks, 'Monkey Dung Man' and the rather sadder, 'Taking On Men' head up the paired back proud integrity of the closing track Only Remembered'.
Songs From The Shipyards is another fantastic album from The Unthanks. They have become synonymous with quality. The album, as you might expect, is full of character and love. 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.