Review : The Unthanks - The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons
PopmattersThe 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....full text
BbcOn the surface, there is little connection between cherished Brit icon Robert Wyatt and cherished icon-in-the-making Antony Hegarty beyond the fact The Unthanks covered a selection of both over two nights at London’s Union Chapel in December 2010. But both singer-songwriters are unified by being highly idiosyncratic and intuitively melodic mavericks with a stark, intimate simplicity that often unfolds as luminous ballads. As Unthanks pianist and producer Adrian McNally says of both, "There is never a spare note played or one struck to impress." On top, both songwriters have a very strong political polemic that doesn’t overwhelm with sloganeering. How fortunate that The Unthanks come from the same tradition, while Rachel and Becky Unthanks’ voices are blessed with that same stark, intimate simplicity. In other words, it’s a perfect match.
The covers come in two halves. First, it’s six of Hegarty’s songs, mostly drawn from his breakthrough album I Am a Bird Now. Given Hegarty’s transgender politics and drive to establish a liberated perspective beyond machismo, it’s fascinating to hear his songs sung by women. Bird Girl is arguably Hegarty’s most heartbreaking tune, but For Today I am a Boy and You Are My Sister are more gripping because of their context. As older sis Rachel recalls between songs, she and Becky have a brother in-between their ages, and that Becky reckoned when she reached her brother’s age, she’d actually become a boy. Even better is hearing You Are My Sister sung to each other by sisters in blood as well as spirit, the arrangement and tone touching rather than cloying....full text
GuardianThe second Unthanks album of the year is a thoughtful, delicate and bravely original tribute to two fine contemporary songwriters, and a further reminder of the role that pianist, arranger and producer Adrian McNally is playing in shaping the music of his wife Rachel and her sister Becky. The highly individual work of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons, the band led by Antony Hegarty, has featured in the Unthanks repertoire before, but it was McNally's idea that they should devote a concert exclusively to their music. The project was first staged a year ago at London's Union Chapel, where this live set was recorded. It starts with six Antony and the Johnson songs, with the sisters' intimate vocals backed by piano and strings for the pained and delicate Paddy's Gone and Spiralling. Then come nine songs from Wyatt's repertoire, including a cool, engaging treatment of the boldly philosophical Free Will and Testament, an angry, political Out of the Blue, and even a burst of brass and clog dancing on Dondestan. There are no overdubs added, and none were needed....full text
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