Diversions Vol. 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons
Release Date: February 7, 2012
Trying to recreate another artist’s songs in an effort to pay respects to them, while still attempting to mold them into something different, is a daring and often misdirected effort. Trying to do this with artists who are cult icons and relatively unknown to a general audience is an even trickier, albeit braver, attempt. The Unthanks do all of this with a live show recorded in London’s Union Chapel, reproducing the songs of Antony and the Johnsons and Robert Wyatt. With this collection of songs, the listener will either love it or hate it, and there really is no middle ground with such a challenge.
Diversions Vol. 1 is an album that first needs some background to be truly appreciated. First off, The Unthanks, a British folk band headed by the Unthanks sisters, often give homage to artists that have influenced them to produce the music they love- and it quickly becomes obvious they do so with nothing but the utmost respect. On their newest effort, they pay their respects to Robert Wyatt, one of the most influential and prolific musicians from the 1960’s Canterbury folk scene. In addition to the songs of Wyatt, Diversions Vol. 1 is just as much about the songs of Antony & the Johnsons, the experimental group led by Antony Hagarty. Antony & the Johnsons defy any traditional classification, and have created a cult following with Antony’s somewhat androgynous persona.
Given what seems such a complex concept to this live performance, The Unthanks glide through each of the songs with an ease that cannot be faked. It is clear that they understand the artists and the messages in the songs they are recreating. They convey the sadness and intensity of Antony’s songs beautifully and poignantly, at times nearly bringing tears to the listener’s eyes. Just as astutely, they are able to convey Wyatt’s songs with a loneliness and urgency that insists one stays engaged until the end.
At times, The Unthanks do not quite reach the same intensity of Antony or Wyatt, but that may be a feat that is nearly impossible to start. While listening to the album, it is easy to forget that it is a live recording, as there is a flawlessness that links one song to the next. What at first seems an odd pairing of concepts and artists which may be at odds with one another, it becomes clear The Unthanks have a vision that is paralleled with those which they emulate.
For those who are unfamiliar with the work of any of the three presented here, Diversions Vol. 1 is a great introduction. What could have gone extremely wrong seems so right in every way by the end. With songs that swell with emotion and intensity from beginning to end, they triumph over anyone who said they couldn’t do it. The bravery possessed by The Unthanks should be applauded, regardless of the reaction to the recording itself. This is perhaps the most unique addition to the cult music scene in some time- a relatively unknown group (at least in the US) covering songs of cult musicians, is sure to create an instant cult following of their own. The Unthanks possess bravery, genius, and just enough audacity to pull off an effort that could have so easily failed. In the end, they have achieved a place that cannot quite be categorized in the music world. Consider their place in the cult niche solidified.
For more about The Unthanks, visit their site.
[This review is also published at Kevchino.com]