As you might expect from a group as interesting as The Unthanks, Diversions is not a straight covers album. Rather it is a re-imagining, a project in its own right, comparable to many other ‘versions’ projects that have emerged from the folk musicians over the years – from cult albums like Jeffrey Lewis’s 12 Crass Songs to lesser known efforts like Jo Freya’s renditions of Lal Waterson’s catalogue.
The album is a live recording from a gig at the Union Chapel this time last year. This is a good move for The Unthanks and at last recaptures some of that passionate rawness from their break-through The Bairns, released under their previous guise as Rachel Unthank and The Winterset.
Yet they pay a price for this rawness: the levels on the first few tracks – six Antony & the Johnsons covers – are all over the place, the piano churning through the sisters’ lovely vocals like an automated plough through a poppy field. At the best of times I miss the Winterset’s pianist Belinda O’Hooley’s haunting solid sparseness in the The Unthanks’ arrangements – the levels on the Anthony & The Johnson tracks only highlight her absence.
The real meat of the album comes in the second half – nines songs from the work of Robert Wyatt – and what songs they are. The tone is varied, the texture rich and the band uses everything at their disposal to support the sensitivity of Wyatt’s writing. From glorious strings, to clogs, to riotous hand-claps, the arrangements hit that goldilocks zone of live performance: never too much, never too little. On this half of the album nine different listeners could each come away with a different favourite track and there’s always something new to hear.
This is very much an album of two halves but at its best Diversions shows off the sparseness and artistic bravery that first made The Unthanks’ name. If I’d been at the Union Chapel that night, I’d have given this a standing ovation and shouted for an encore. Happily, they’ve called this album “Vol. 1” so I might just get one.
Words: Tom Moyser