Not Diverse or Diverting Enough
Breaking from their first two releases, both a winning combo of rainy British folk and modern-but-reverent originals, Northumbrian folkie sisters The Unthanks let their hair down with Diversions, Vol. 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons, a full-bore covers album. And despite Becky and Rachel’s elegance and sincerity during this live set—as well as that of piano man Adrian McNally and an adroit group of backup strings—the material suffers from playing too close to its sources.
When songs like “Bird Gerhl” and “Spiralling” by epicene shy guy Antony Hegarty are so straightforwardly covered—right down to their torch song slowness and every eerie nuance—you’re left puzzled and lamenting, “I liked this better… when it was called Antony and the Johnsons.” It’s just a couple tinkers off too. A fun change in composition here, a novel instrument there, and you’d more likely get that sense of newness and reinterpretation vital to a good tribute record.
The last half of Diversions fares better, though. Paying respects to psychedelic salty dog Robert Wyatt, whose dense studio weirdness might seem a tough carry to the live setting, the sisters Unthank surprise with an airy rendering of “Dondestan,” spinning Wyatt’s un-hinged jazz into a lighthearted tribal dance—with the girls even hoofing it, Riverdance-style. The audience gets into the action and claps away too, stoking the festive fun all the more.
“Cuckoo Madam” also translates well, trading the original’s oddball Twin Peaks synth for a dirge-like piano and brass configuration. The auditorium is effectively chilled to a shivering temperature, and Becky and Rachel’s sullen Brythonic delivery weighs on you like wet wool in the winter. The necrotic drums lumber like an ebbing animal, and the song’s utterly nutty lyrics paint that haunted mansion picture that peeks at you when you’re not looking. Evocative!
But of course the issue is not with The Unthanks’ skill or intelligence—they’re more than talented. The persistent trouble lies in an often too literal recitation of the original material. Antony and the Johnsons’ creature-of-the-night romanticism is lovingly recounted with little invention or diversity, and save for a few occasions, not enough is done with the Wyatt selections as well. There’s no doubting the group loves their honorees, and rightly so—they’re inspiring guys. But that reverence never properly decouples into a genuine standalone expression. Thus we’re left to affirm the cuts as little more than just as they’re titled, Diversions.