Listening to… The Unthanks

The Unthanks, Diversions. I love The Unthanks—it’s unapologetically raw modern folk with indie band underpinnings—kind of the way Steeleye Span felt in the much different music universe of the 1970s. For The Unthanks to cover not just one or two but a whole album’s worth of songs by Anthony & The Johnsons and Robert Wyatt—acts that prize spirituality over musical conventions—seems like a declaration: We are in this world now, and we prefer to be gentle and pretty. Deal with it. Or, as one of the lead-vocalist Unthank sisters says early in this live recording, “You’ve all got your nice woolly coats on.”
Yet for all the sweetness and lightness of the presentation, there’s an earthiness and sauciness inherent in The Unthanks. “Buckets at the ready,” the band’s stylistic mastermind Adrian McNally says before he begins playing the piano part of Antony Hegarty’s trickily harmonic “You Are My Sister”; “Here’s one to make you puke.” He presumably means he’s worried the song is underrehearsed, but not to worry. The Unthanks don’t really make mistakes; they interact openly. Plus, having real sisters sing this encouraging, loving songs overcomes all else.
With the exception of a few signature songs, A&TJ and Wyatt aren’t often covered, yet they are such distinctive cover artists themselves: I’m thinking of Wyatt’s industrial take on the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet’s wartime novelty “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’,” or Anthony ethereal unraveling of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” The Unthanks find both structure and improvisational opportunities in such material as Wyatt’s stomping and honking “Dondestan” and Antony’s desolate “Paddy’s Gone.” There’s considerably more Wyatt (nine songs) than Johnsons (six) here, but it’s the half dozen Antony songs in a row which lead off the concert, so any imbalance is redressed by that mood-setting choice. Wyatt’s had the longer and more varied career, so the set of his songs provides the sort of jumpiness and edginess you need in a second act.

Rachel Unthank: “Just in case anybody’s worried because we’re doing these other things, that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be any clog dancing.
Adrian McNally: “We know why you’re here.”