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.
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"Diversions Vol 2. constitutes perhaps the most daring and accomplished of musical adventures to date for The Unthanks. Their paradoxical marriage of staunch traditionalism and sonic adventure continues in the shape of brand new collaboration with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, known as the best public subscription band in the world, celebrating their second successive year as National Champions of Great Britain.
The record is the culmination of a project that began as a commission from Brass: Durham International Festival, with Unthanks pianist, composer and producer Adrian McNally writing The Father s Suite: a four movement piece in celebration of Rachel Unthank and McNally's first child, born four weeks before the sold-out, premiere in Durham Cathedral.
""I grew up in the former mining village of South Hiendley, about two miles from Grimethorpe, home of the most famous colliery band in the world,"" explains McNally. ""I was 11 when everything changed in 1984. Brass band music was part of the fabric, and something I absorbed as a child, which is probably why I find it so emotive as an adult. Folk song and brass band music may be different musical disciplines but often both were designed to speak for and be spoken by the same people"".
Despite having no training and being unable to read or write music, with the assistance of Unthanks fiddler player Niopha Keegan, Adrian McNally has written brass scores for approximately half this record. The other half features songs that have previously appeared on Unthanks albums, with The Unthanks arrangements adapted for brass by conductor Sandy Smith.
Amongst the new material is Tommy Armstrong's Trimdon Grange Explosion, written 150 years ago about a Durham mining disaster. ""74 people died, among them boys as young as 11,"" explains Rachel Unthank. McNally's The Father's Suite features spoken word by Jack Elliott (of the famous Elliott's of Birtley, taken from a BBC film about his life) and an adaptation of Ewan MacColl's Father's Song, with a new tune written by McNally, unable to find a copy of the original tune to hand at the point of writing and keen to press on while the creative iron was hot. The project also sees debut lead vocal performances by Unthank members Niopha Keegan and Chris Price and the record kicks off with the televised performance of King of Rome that was so rapturously received at the BBC Folk Awards earlier this year.
While all the tracks on this record were recorded live in concert halls, cathedrals and town halls; some in front of an audience and some not; it should not be regarded as a 'live album', in the lowly, lesser sense of the term. A live album would normally contain pieces that an artist has recorded more definitive studio versions of previously. That is not the case here. The scale of a brass band and the practicalities of singing with them almost necessitates live performance anyway, so why not in front of an audience? For better or worse, these are the definitive versions!"