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The Unthanks: Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons

Sisters Rachel and Becky make a modest career in singing/messing with traditional folk songs

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The Unthanks

Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons: Live at the Union Chapel

Rough Trade

The Unthanks are not an indie-rock duo with a snarky name, thank god. Rachel and Becky are sisters with the somewhat unlikely seeming surname of Unthank who hail from the British county of Northumberland and have built a modest career in singing/messing with traditional folk songs. In late 2010, they gathered their small, eponymous acoustic backing group and booked two nights at London’s Union Chapel to record a set of more contemporary songs by venerable art-rock bard Robert Wyatt and sui generis thrush Antony “and the Johnsons” Hegarty. The inadvertent result is folk music for a new century.

This is a live album in the typical respects—stage banter and applause preserved—and the otherworldly spell of Hegarty’s songs (see “Spiraling”) is somewhat marred by the mood-breaking jokes (even in adorable, peat-thick accents) and quips about clog dancing. It’s when they get to Wyatt’s songs in the second half of the program that this set really comes alive.

Wyatt’s albums over the past 30 years or so tend to be modest-sounding affairs highlighted by his reedy voice and compositions in which he blends his gift for jazzy melody with a ferocious intelligence and a gimlet-sharp political focus. When the promised clog dancing at the Unthanks’ gig goes down, it’s to Wyatt’s deceptively jaunty “Dondestan,” the chorus of which goes, “Palestine’s a country/ Or, at least used to be.” The performers clearly feel the weight of Wyatt’s lyrical concerns, and the restiveness heard early in this selection of performances disappears. Their performance of “Free Will and Testament” makes the most of its ’50s slow-dance melody and the verses’ weary concern with bedsit ontology. The sisters likewise lend urgency and grace to “Out of the Blue,” Wyatt and his wife Alfred Benge’s channeling of a victim of random aerial bombing such as might be going on by U.S. planes in Afghanistan as you read this. Wyatt’s pen can be as biting when it comes to domestic relations (“Sea Song”) as about international relations (the anti-colonialist “Lisp Service”—“Plundering, murdering/ Raiding coast to coast/ Good old days of gore”), but either way, such uncompromising, engaged songwriting is sorely missing in these unengaged times, and god save a pair of singing sisters from the North of England out to spread it around.

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