Review: The Unthanks - Diversions Vol. 1 - The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony & The Johnsons
Album Cover - The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony & The Johnsons
The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony & The Johnsons
 Artist: The Unthanks
 Album: Diversions Vol. 1 - The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony & The Johnsons, Live From The Union Chapel, London
 Date of Release: 2011/11
 Label: RabbleRouser Music (US: 101 DISTRIBUTION)
 Cat. No.: RRM009
 Country of Release: UK
 Genre/s: World | Folk

 Sub-Genre/s: Contemporary, Experimental, English, Anglo
 Type: Live
   Time: 67:52
   Date of Review: 2011/12/19
   Web Site:

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The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony & The Johnsons

Their second album of the year, The Unthanks' Diversions Vol. 1 - The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony And The Johnsons, Live From The Union Chapel, London, to give it its full title, was released on RabbleRouser Music this November.

It's The Unthanks, what do you expect? It's different, yes. But it's the typical, glorious The Unthanks perfection. What else is there to say really that this outstanding, hauntingly beautiful music doesn't say far more eloquently already? I think the best thing that can be said is simply, just go and buy the album and listen for yourself. Then tell me it doesn't take your breath and your words away!

Alright, although I would really like to close this review with that... The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony And The Johnsons is the first of a series of planned 'Diversions' from The Unthanks' standard modern folk/traditional folk studio releases. A second, a collaboration with another glorious, working class tradition and sadly endangered species, that of the British Brass Band, in this case the Brighouse And Rastick Brass Band (yes, they of The Floral Dance fame of some thirty odd years ago, if you can remember that far back!), is already in preparation. Already recorded (it was originally broadcast live on BBC Radio), it is as glorious as anything, but we shall have to be patient a little. These kind of releases are expensive (licensing, etc. etc.!). (Here's a tip - the more copies of The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony And The Johnsons you buy, the sooner you will see the next release. Probably.)

As the title implies, The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony And The Johnsons was recorded live at the Union Chapel in Islington, North London, over the course of two concerts there on 8th and 9th December 2010. The Union Chapel has some of the most fabulous acoustics, including all its quirks, for live recordings, so the venue could hardly have been better chosen. I happen to love live recordings, and this one is just fabulous, occasional (barely audible) coughs from the audience or the occasional police siren included! None of these detract from the quality of the recording or production one iota for me. If anything, they enhance the 'live' experience. As, indeed, does the absence of over-dubs.

A few of these songs should already be familiar from The Bairns - some of those of Robert Wyatt. It seems entirely fitting and appropriate that the works of one national treasure, Wyatt, should be interpreted so soulfully, sensitively by what must surely by now be another national treasure, The Unthanks. And then there is Antony Hegarty of Antony & The Johnsons, perhaps another international icon in the making.

Wyatt is still best remembered as one of the founding fathers of prog-rock and particularly as a founder of Canterbury scene band Soft Machine, and later Matching Mole. However, it is his long, distinguished solo career, which more and more leaned towards jazz, through jazz fusion and free jazz (his most recent work being based around jazz standards in a collaboration with long time associate, jazz phenomenon Gilad Atzmon, and violinist Ros Stephen - incidentally, among many other projects, also part of The Unthanks' string section - in 2010, For The Ghosts Within), that proved the most fascinating and is relevant here. Of the nine Wyatt songs on The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony And The Johnsons, only one is not a Wyatt original, the Anja Garbarek penned Stay Tuned which Wyatt covered on his album Comicopera.

British born Hegarty grew up in the United States, and it is there that Antony & The Johnsons started life in the late 1990s. The six Hegarty songs here come from their 2005 Mercury Prize-winning album I Am A Bird Now, with one originating from the single You Are My Sister. As an aside here, it is interesting also to hear these songs, mostly strongly expressing Hegarty's transgender politics, sung by women. Hegarty later also produced lyrics that were perhaps among some of the most strongly environmentalist yet.

What most strongly provides the connection between these two singer-songwriters, Wyatt and Hegarty, is a strong idiosyncrasy, and an intuition for mostly melodic ballads of great intimacy and simplicity. There is no show-off factor in this music, no superfluous notes written purely to wow. What is more, both do not let their strong political polemic deteriorate to preaching and thus never overwhelm.

By a fortuitous coincidence, much the same ideals apply to The Unthanks. When you add to this the gorgeously pure, simple, intimate voices of Rachel and Becky Unthank, and the superbly sensitive arrangements, you get a match made in heaven.

Of course, not all is doom and gloom with The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony And The Johnsons. For a start, there's the ever witty, humorous happy banter from the sisters and Adrian McNally between songs that is so much a part of any Unthanks live performance. And then, of course, 'light relief' also comes with Wyatt's Dondestan and the sisters' energetic, joyous clog dancing.

As consistently brilliant as it is brilliantly consistent, The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony And The Johnsons is, like any Unthanks album, simply mesmerising in its charm and haunting beauty. It is just utterly irresistible, and the interpretations somehow surpass the originals - a rare beast indeed, and all the harder given the excellence of Wyatt and Hegarty's originals.

The Unthanks' The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony And The Johnsons is simply a far more than essential must have - you simply have to beg, steal, or borrow this album, or better, buy it!

© 2011-2012 Rainlore's World of Music/Rainlore. All rights reserved.

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Track List:

The Songs Of Antony & The Johnsons:

 1. Bird Gerhl - 3:56
 2. Man Is The Baby - 5:43
 3. You Are My Sister - 5:55
 4. For Today I Am A Boy - 4:05
 5. Paddy's Gone - 4:13
 6. Spiralling - 4:40

All tracks Antony Hegarty
All tracks from I Am A Bird Now except 5 from the single You Are My Sister

The Songs Of Robert Wyatt:

 7. Stay Tuned (Anja Garbarek; from Comicopera) - 4:43
 8. Dondestan (Wyatt; from Dondestan (revisited)) - 3:18
 9. Lullaby For Hamza (Wyatt / Benge; from Cuckooland) - 3:43
10. Lisp Service (Hopper / Wyatt, from Dondestan (revisited)) - 3:10
11. Free Will And Testament (Wyatt / Kramer; from Shleep) - 5:03
12. Out Of The Blue (Wyatt / Elfriede Ellidge; from Comicopera) - 4:11
13. Cuckoo Madame (Wyatt / Benge; from Cuckooland) - 5:15
14. Sea Song (Wyatt; from Rock Bottom) - 6:59
15. Forest (excerpt; from Cuckooland) - 2:50

Strings on Antony Set transcribed by Niopha Keegan
Strings on Lisp Service by Jo Silverston
Strings on Out Of The Blue by Becca Spencer and Lizzie Jones
Strings on Stay Tuned by Niopha Keegan

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Rachel Unthank - vocals, feet, dulcitone
Becky Unthank - vocals, feet
Adrian McNally - piano on Robert Wyatt set, drums on Antony set, harmonium, vocals
Chris Price - drums on Robert Wyatt set, electric bass on Antony set, vocals
Niopha Keegan - violin, accordion, vocals

Ros Stephen - violin, vocals
Becca Spencer - viola, vocals
Jo Silverston - cello, vocals
Lizzie Jones - trumpet, vocals
Dean Rivera - double bass
Jonny Kearney - piano on Antony set


Purchasing Info:

The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony & The Johnsons can be purchased from:
Amazon UK (Also MP3) (Also MP3)


Other online sources and major CD stores

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