The Unthanks  Diversions: Vol. 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons
    • TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 07, 2012

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    Live concert recordings can be a mixed bag. Some bands thrive on the freeform jam experience, and live recordings of their songs are considered the "definitive" versions. Live/Dead is as legendary as it is for a reason. However, more often than not, live albums simply lack the polish and attention to detail that made the studio records so mesmerizing. When I began The Unthanks live concert recording of beloved tracks by baroque pop artist Antony and the Johnsons and avant-garde jazz musician Robert Wyatt, I was obviously skeptical of pairing these classic tracks with covers by British folk musicians. All readers can leave those trepidations at the door because Diversions Vol. 1: Live from the Union Chapel: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons is a hauntingly beautiful take on some of the most inherently gorgeous music of the last ten years.

    With the exception of one track ("Paddy's Gone"), the first six tracks of Diversions Vol. 1 are from Antony and the Johnsons' classic album I Am a Bird Now with the remaining nine tracks coming from Robert Wyatt's varied discography. For those not familiar with I Am a Bird Now, much of the album dealt with transgender issues. Antony Hegarty pours his entire being into these confessional songs with his multi-octave vocal range and their music is as much performance art as it is conventional indie baroque pop. The Unthanks may be women singing songs about a man that wants to be a woman but even when there's an absurdity to hearing them sing these songs, it's OK because their voices are stunning, and they manage to infuse the songs with emotional depth even when thinking about it too much may leave you a little confused.

    The ultimate ode to transgenderism remains the album's highlight. "For Today I Am a Boy" may lose something insubstantial in the process of not being sung by the enigmatic Antony Hegerty, but the Unthanks make it their own with theatrical strings and a voice just like Bjork. "You Are My Sister" is a song about incest, but the Unthanks still manage to turn it into a beautiful track as well. "Dondestan" is a Robert Wyatt track that calls to mind some of the proto twee-pop that the Clash (yeah you're reading that right) helped to invent on "Hitsville, U.K." There's an instant dichotomy between the Robert Wyatt tracks and the Antony tracks. Antony may cover taboo subject matter but there's an uplifting nature in his music that fills you with joy and a sense of beauty. Robert Wyatt's songs (at least as covered by the Unthanks) maintain the beauty but there is an inherent sadness as well.

    If you are a fan of female singers with superb voices and can get the past that this is nothing more than a live tribute album of covers, Diversions: Vol. 1 makes for a great listen. These sisters have haunting voices, and the live string arrangements maintain the theatricality that made I Am a Bird Now so instantly beloved as well with Robert Wyatt's library of music. It's certainly piqued our interest to see what these girls sound like when they're recording music of their own.

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