The Unthanks carefully offer a hand of comfort to these tales of ordinary sadness.
Jeanette Leech 2012
In life, diversions can often yield fascinating consequences. They’re the world’s optional extras, where success or failure is not paramount; so there’s wriggle room for experiment. Such is, very definitely, the case with The Unthanks’ ongoing Diversions project.
In 2011, for Diversions Vol. 1, The Unthanks reimagined the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons. The band planted these two mercurial songwriters into a diaphanous folk world, to striking results. Now, Diversions Vol. 2 – in collaboration with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band – almost does the opposite. It takes folk music and unflinchingly pumps up the volume.
As a live album, recorded at various concert venues, town halls and cathedrals throughout Britain, the temptation may have been strong to make the brass bombast a quick shortcut to impact. Yet nowhere does that happen, even in the album’s loudest moments. The arrangements are extremely careful. There are the featherweight tracks, where the brass is the seedbed for tender shoots of vocals: as on opener The King of Rome, and the slowly creeping Gan to the Kye.
In contrast, there are the far more upfront arrangements of Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk and Trimdon Grange Explosion. These two horrific narratives are stunning in their use of brass to express, respectively, anger and paralysing grief.
The album has humorous moments, most notably an almost parody-like reinterpretation of Queen of Hearts, a highlight from The Unthanks’ 2011 album Last; here, it’s performed in the style of a finger-clickin’ Vegas crooner. There’s also the loving, yet completely unsentimental, The Father’s Suite. A celebration of Rachel Unthank and Adrian McNally’s first son, it hands down the musical dreams of father and grandfather to the next generation in two instrumental vignettes, while offering sage advice via a take on Ewan MacColl’s frank lullaby, The Father’s Song. “There’s no ogres, wicked witches,” sings Rachel to her newborn, “only greedy sons-of-bitches.”
While Diversions Vol. 2 is often emotionally naked, it is musically restorative. By entwining folk and marching bands, two boldly working-class styles, The Unthanks offer a strong hand of comfort to these tales of ordinary sadness.