When Vince in The Mighty Boosh describes Howard’s face as “like a brass band under a wig… marching towards me every day” he means that Howard’s face is “all a bit too busy, all the features jostling for position, the eyes screaming out, the nose. Very visually noisy”.
Yet if Howard’s face were compared to Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band on Diversions vol. 2, accompanying the prim voices and melodic piano of The Unthanks, the simile would mean something very different: harmonious, wholesome, other-worldly. Even subtle.
The band is incredibly versatile, from march music offset with sparse, mournful arrangements on the beautiful ‘Trimdon Grange Explosion’, to near classical arrangements on the Prokofiev-reminiscent ‘My Lagan Love’ and the James Bond pyrotechnics in the new rendition of ‘Queen of Hearts’. In its tones and timbre, every track is as reassuringly traditional as logs on a fireplace, but they crackle with a new wit in combinations that, without contradiction, show British folk – and brass band music – at its most innovative.
Where The Unthanks find themselves clasped to their comfort zone, on the piano-led renditions, things can slip into the perfunctory and, dare I say it, the Coldplay. There is a hook, for example, in the otherwise awe-inspiring four-song ‘Father’s Suit’ that sounds like ‘Trouble’. And I don’t mean that as an idiom.
These moments remind us that in some ways The Unthanks are musical conservatives, bound to a certain stillness and very keen on preserving and crystallizing traditional ways of living and thinking. Their music is the sublime compromise between this and the creative impulse to change, innovate and explore – even as modernity marches towards them every day, busy, jostling and noisy, like a brass band under a wig.
Words: Tom Moyser