There are some artists who make an indelible impression on you from the first moment you see and or hear them perform. The first time I heard and saw and heard Antony of Antony and the Johnsons was his performance of “If It Be Your Will” on a DVD recording of a tribute concert for Leonard Cohen. Not knowing what to expect, when he opened his mouth and began singing and that amazing voice issued forth, my heart almost stopped. I’ve heard other male tenors and contra tenors before, but none of them with the ability to put so much of themselves into their singing.
Listening to his recordings with Antony & The Johnsons, and various other recordings he’s made accompanying other performers since has only served to convince me of his genius. Yet how well would his material translate when performed by someone else? Would his songs be as captivating without the unique qualities of his voice giving them emotional depth?
Well, a new release by the British folk group The Unthanks, named for lead singers and sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, Diversions Vol. 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, being released in North America on Rough Trade America on February 7, 2012, seemed like a great opportunity to see how Antony’s music held up in the hands of others. To be honest, I had never heard of The Unthanks and only had a vague sort of awareness of the other songwriter featured, Robert Wyatt. It turns out Wyatt is the former lead singer of the British 1960s group Soft Machine who, after a nasty fall left him paralyzed from the waist down, went on to develop a career as a singer/songwriter in Europe and the United Kingdom.
As for The Unthanks, they are another in the long line of British folk groups whose roots are firmly embedded into that island nation’s musical history. Unlike folk music here in North America with its topical/political associations, in the United Kingdom the genre is far more literally representative of the “folk” of the country’s various regions. In the case of The Unthanks, that’s Northumberland, best known for its wide open moors, bloody past and having once been an industrial heartland.
Not having heard any of their music prior to this recording, I don’t have any means of comparing this new recording with their other work. However, judging by their history, they’ve not shied away from tackling material most would consider outside folk music’s traditional purview. No matter how progressive they are I’m sure there aren’t many others in the genre who’ve covered everything from King Crimson to Tom Waits.
So this foray into covering others’ music isn’t something new for the band. What is unusual is they had done a series of live concerts dedicated to performing the works of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons. The tracks on this CD are taken from two concerts they gave at the Union Chapel in London, England on December 8 and 9, 2010. Diversions Vol 1 opens with five tracks taken from the Antony & the Johnsons’ release I Am A Bird Now plus one song, “Paddy’s Gone”, from the single “You Are My Sister”.
The second half of the concert, and the CD, are nine of Robert Wyatt’s songs taken from five of his solo releases. At the actual concerts, the audience was given an intermission between the two sets. You might just want to hit pause for a few seconds after the last Antony & the Johnsons’ tune to give yourself time to prepare for the change in atmosphere that occurs with the change in material.
What is most impressive about this CD is the remarkable way in which the Unthanks are able to capture the almost ethereal quality of Antony & the Johnsons’ music and convey the emotional intensity behind his highly personal material. Antony’s songs are akin to paintings in the way they present a variety of self-portraits of the artist. Exploring themes such as sexual identity, “For Today I Am A Boy”, “Bird Gerhl” and “You Are My Sister” all deal with that subject with remarkable candour and sweetness; it makes it extremely difficult for someone other than the writer to perform them with the honesty required for them to touch a listener in the same way as the original.
While both Rachel and Becky Unthank have strong singing voices with impressive ranges, they very wisely don’t attempt to match Antony’s unique style. Unaffected and pure, with a raw sweetness of their own, what their voices might lack when it comes to the ethereal quality that gives Antony’s work its emotional integrity, is more than made up for by their obvious honesty. Like great actors who allow themselves to become conduits for a writer’s words, the Unthank sisters have done their best to let the lyrics speak for themselves. Where others may have tried too hard, and in the process spoiled the purity of the songs’ emotions, they have let the material guide their performances instead of forcing their own interpretations upon it.
However, no matter how good a job they do with Antony’s material, it’s the songs by Robert Wyatt that allow them to show the qualities that had one of their recent albums voted onto two of Britain’s more reputable newspapers’ lists of the previous decades’ best recordings. Hints of this quality and musical ability, mixed with a certain homespun warmth had shown up in their chatter in between the songs in the first part of the show with the comments the sisters made to each other and the audience.
Wyatt’s material, rooted as it is in the same folk traditions from which the sisters spring, is more of a natural fit for them not only musically but culturally. This isn’t to say they are lacking in musical sophistication, because the arrangements by the band’s producer and keyboard player Adrian McNally aren’t simplistic by any means. Yet, it feels like they have far more of a natural affinity for work based on more traditional folk stylings.
Wyatt’s songs seemed to liberate the band more and the second half of the CD was far more exuberant, especially a rousing rendition of “Dondestan” that sounded like it included some of the clog dancing the sisters had promised their audience earlier on in the show. Of course, not all of the tunes were “dance” numbers. “Free Will And Testament”, for example, was equally as introspective as anything done in the first half of the show, but regardless of its tempo, The Unthanks seemed a little bit more relaxed and open playing this music. In fact, the last time I had heard a concert with this unique a mixture of musical professionalism and “down home” atmosphere was watching Kate and Anna McGarrigle perform.
Diversions Vol. 1: The Songs Of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons will not only give those who appreciate the music of the artists being covered a chance to hear evocative and thoughtful interpretations of their work, it offers listeners an indication of The Unthanks’ versatility. The fact they are equally capable of performing the work of two such different artists with almost equal comfort and ability is astounding. For those like me who had never heard them before, it makes for a remarkable introduction to their music and whets your appetite for more. The fact that it was recorded live in front of an audience makes it even more impressive and left me hoping they’ll consider touring on this side of the Atlantic ocean some time in the near future.
(Photo Credit: Pip April)