Antony Hegarty possesses one of the most incredible voices in recent decades, so taking on Antony and the Johnsons’ songs is no small task. The same can be said of Robert Wyatt, whose songs are steeped in the whimsical tradition associated with the mid-’60s British Canterbury scene. Thus, when The Unthanks, led by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, announced their intention to cover songs by both, and to do it live no less, critics’ ears perked up. They’ve spoken about Diversions Vol 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons (the first in a series) as a way to intimately understand works by some of their favorite musicians. Rather than merely sing someone else’s words, The Unthanks successfully breathe a new life into the lyrics.
The first six songs, performed last December at London’s Union Chapel, focus almost exclusively on tracks taken from Antony and the Johnsons’ I Am a Bird Now. Opening track “Bird Gerhl” sets the tone, their voices clear, soothing over strings and piano that highlight Hegarty’s extremely personal songwriting. However, they pull it off in such a manner that they’re never inserting too much of themselves. In addition to the sisters’ pristine voices, the piano and string arrangements (written by Rachel Unthank’s husband Adrian McNally) impress on tracks like “You Are My Sister” and “For Today I Am a Boy”.
There is a clear shift when they move on to Wyatt’s works in the second half. Like The Unthanks, Wyatt is rooted in the British folk tradition. “Sea Song” appeared on their second album, and they effectively highlight the mood of lonesome urgency as it unfolds into a luminous ballad. “Lullaby for Hanza”, with horns that play like warning signs, is full of the simplistic purity that The Unthank sisters cover so well.
Rachel and Becky Unthank convey the intensity of Antony and the Johnsons, as well as Wyatt’s weariness. This kind of tribute doesn’t come about often enough, and they’ve nailed it, letting the lyricism and emotionality ring out.
Essential Tracks: “Bird Gerhl”, “For Today I Am a Boy”, “Sea Song”, “Lullaby for Hanza”