Rachel and Becky Unthank grew up in a musical family in Tyneside, North East England, and came up singing unaccompanied traditional folk songs. With Diversions Vol. 5 they’ve come full circle, making their first album of unaccompanied songs as a trio, along with Niopha Keegan, who usually plays fiddle and sings.
Rachel, the elder sister, started the group Rachel Unthank and the Winterset in the early 2000s, releasing two well-reviewed albums in 2005 and 2007. That group morphed into The Unthanks, which since 2009 has released nine studio albums in a wild variety of styles and subject matter. The core group includes the three women plus Adrian McNally as pianist, producer and arranger, and Chris Price on guitars and bass, plus a larger cast of others who feature on various recordings and in live shows.
But this time around it’s all Rachel, Becky and Niopha, singing contemporary and traditional songs in spellbinding harmonic arrangements. It was recorded live across a five-week tour in spring 2019. The performances on this record were selected from 31 shows in Newcastle, Dublin, London, Brighton, Durham, Bellaghy and Belfast. I’m picturing a mini-set of unaccompanied songs at each show, from which they could choose the best for this set.
I’ve been aware of the Unthanks since that first Winterset release, but they haven’t really been promoted much in the U.S., and I’ve not spent much time with their music. Let me tell you, the first time I put Diversions Vol. 5 on the player, my hair stood on end and didn’t lay down again until these 13 songs were done, some three-quarters of an hour later.
One of their signature harmony songs, “Magpie,” is the second track. It’s the first time they’ve recorded it in an unaccompanied arrangement, and one of only three songs here that have appeared on previous band albums. With its repeated chorus of “Devil, Devil, I defy thee,” … I defy anyone to listen to this without the hair on their extremities standing up straight.
One of the things The Unthanks are known for is subtly incorporating a spirit of jazz into their arrangements, both instrumental and vocal. There’s plenty of that here in some of these songs – including “Griesly Bride” and “Guard Yer Man Weel” – where they use hummed two-part vocal drones behind the lead singer, slipping into brief dissonances before breaking into three-part harmonies for the climactic verses and choruses. If traditional-style songs are your thing, you’ll be happy with those two as well as the opener “One By One,” Mimi Fariña’s rousing working-women union song “Bread And Roses” and of course “Magpie.” A lot of the songs in this tradition are slow and mournful, but there are plenty of the other kind as well, and The Unthanks sprinkle them throughout this set for relief – in tempo as well as humor. I’m thinking of the lively “Geordie Wedding Set” and “Where’ve Yer Bin Dick,” which is written as a conversation, alternating lines between question and answer. “Bees” is a contemporary folk song in a unique doo-wop-style arrangement, and “Caught In A Storm” a dramatic contemporary song. The closing track, the traditional “Farewell Shanty,” sounds like they’re standing on the lip of the stage away from the microphones, and eliciting a sing-along of different sections of the audience. It’s the sort of thing I’m always shy of participating in but it’s a lovely effect on the record and I see why it’s so common in folk circles.
If you like English folk music – traditional or contemporary or just all of it – and vocal harmonies, this one is for you. The Unthanks have made a stunningly beautiful record that’s a balm for our troubled times. Diversions Vol. 5 is firmly set in tradition but modern in execution. Highly recommended.
Diversions Vol. 5 also comes as a special DVD edition, which includes “As We Go,” an atmospheric and beautifully shot account of life on the road, through the eyes of filmmaker Ainslie Henderson. (Henderson is Keegan’s partner, and both Keegan and Becky Unthank gave birth about six months before the tour began.) The film features concert highlights, behind the scenes footage, family life and special performances in found spaces, indoor and outdoor, during the tour.