The Unthanks Diversions Vol 5 Live And Unaccompanied
Review by Chris Nickson
"Where've Yer Bin Dick?"
The Unthanks are a folk band. That might seem self-evident to anyone who’s ever heard them. They have roots so deep in the tradition of Northumbria, their part of Britain, that they seem to embody the place, and they have those harmonies, unearthly and beautiful, between sisters Rachel and Becky. But to classify them a folk band doesn’t even tell half the story.
The diversions albums they make are as important as the rest of their canon. In them they’ve explored, among other things, the songs of Anthony and the Johnsons, Robert Wyatt, and Molly Drake (Nick’s mother, if you’re not keeping score). Now, for the fifth amble down the byways, a collection of material performed solely by the sisters, along with band member Niopha Keegan. Three voices, nothing more. And it’s a breathless, beautiful cloud of bliss.
Thirteen songs, only three from the tradition. Add in one from modern singer-songwriter hero Richard Dawson, and another from Dave Dodds, “Magpie,” the theme from the BBC show Detectorists (if you haven’t seen it, find it, a gentle piece of joy). It’s a strange alchemy they possess. It doesn’t seem to matter where they find a song, they make it completely theirs. It might as well have been written and shaped in the Northeast.
And a few of the song do have their origins there, in the Geordie dialect that sits so naturally on the tongues of the sisters (witness the playful “Geordie Wedding Set” that blends a couple of songs) or the gorgeous ache of Johnny Handle’s “Guard Your Man Weel” (not to mention the sly humour of “Where’ve You Been Dick”). But then they can turn around do heartfelt justice to the hopeful call to arms of “Bread and Roses” by James Oppenheim and Mimi Farina.
"Guard Your Man Weel" (Excerpt)
The harmonies are exquisite and the arrangements play well to each voice, both together and apart. They’re tapping into the oldest, most natural singing tradition, of course, the unaccompanied voice. And there’s a British history of it in folk music, from the 1950/60s revival (the Watersons) and before, with the Copper Family, Walter Pardon and many others.
The Unthanks take that tradition and add to it. The three voices intertwine so perfectly and with such ease, every note exactly, swapping leads without effort, and all captured in such pristine fashion that it’s a surprise at the end of each track to hear the applause and realise that this was all live. It all finishes, in fitting fashion, with the audience joining on a version “Farewell Shanty” that disappears in a soft swell of sound over the horizon.
Folk, yes. Undoubtedly and proudly so. But so, so much more as well. – Chris Nickson