The Unthanks: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons

[20 February 2012]

By Steve Horowitz

The Personal and the Politcal

The English folk revival band the Unthanks have been known to do odd covers in the past, such as an acoustic version of King Crimson’s heavy metal fusion track “Starless”, but their latest release is even a greater departure from their rustic roots. For their new record, the Unthanks played two concerts in December 2010 at London’s Union Chapel devoted to two very different artists: Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) and Robert Wyatt (formerly of Soft Machine). Entitled Diversions Vol. 1, it’s the first in a planned series of discs devoted to the band’s favorite artists.

Fans best know Hegarty for his distinctively high voice and his highly personal transsexual lyrics. Wyatt’s famous for his political broadsides against the governments in power across the world. The two artists have little in common, except for their idiosyncrasies. The Unthanks, a quirky group themselves, channel both artists well. The singers Rachel and Becky Unthanks use their unadorned voices to bring out the honesty of Hegarty’s odes for love and acceptance and express Wyatt’s rage at being powerless in a brutal universe. Even more importantly, the band performs with a sense of fun. They are clearly having a good time on stage.

So even if you don’t agree with the sentiments of Wyatt’s polemic about Palestine, “Donderstan”, you still want to clog along to the beat. And even if Hegarty’s intimate “Today I Am a Boy” seems too sticky, the duo’s harmonies leaven the proceedings. The rest of the band matches the singers by using clean and unpretentious accompaniments. The music is simple and more decorative than straightforward. The sisters joke with each other and the band between songs, and speak to the audience as if addressing friends at a party.

The disc begins with six Hegarty songs followed by nine of Wyatt’s. Because Wyatt’s material is more varied, listening to the disc is like watching a flower unfurl. First, you see the bud break and the symmetry of the petals. Then you see inside the bloom and notice the explosions of color and shapes of the different parts. The Hegarty tracks share a consistent vibe and mostly just piano accompaniment. The sweet melodies purposely overwhelm what is being sung to reveal the depth of emotions. The Wyatt cuts serve a diversity of functions and use more varied instrumentation. Taken at face value, they can come close to propaganda, but this improves their expressive value. One can share feelings of hatred if one feels one is the righteous victim, and Rachel and Becky do that well.

The album does not completely coalesce as a single unit as the disparities between Hegarty and Wyatt’s material give it schizophrenic personality. But even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were the same person. The Unthanks personify the connections and contradictions of what it means to be an outsider because of one’s sexuality, political radicalism, or just being sensitive soul in a hard, hard world. At its best, such as on the heartfelt “I Am Your Sister” and the sincere “Lullaby for Hamza”, the band provides blissful solace through its music. That’s an impressive accomplishment.

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