In the summer of 2005 I had the opportunity to visit Chicago, IL. I was very happy, because it gave me an opportunity to play Sufjan Stevens‘ Here Come the Illinois in the actual state of Illinois. I told you in my bio – I’m really not that cool. It also gave me a chance to go see the cover of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in person. As was my custom when visiting other cities back then, I made a visit to a local music store to browse old records and new releases. I had read a bit about the new record by Antony & the Johnsons called I am a Bird Now and decided to pick it up on that fateful day. Words did not, cannot, and will never describe the beauty of listening to the voice of Antony Hegarty – either you will fall in love (as I did) or you will hate it. As his voice took over the speakers in my rental car, driving along Michigan Avenue, I felt elation, hope, and even a bit of sadness – all the things you want in a perfectly executed song. And that was just midway through opening song “Hope There’s Someone”. I spent that entire trip blasting this album throughout the city of Chicago, fighting to drown out the latest hip-hop and rock releases (I probably looked a bit silly to be honest).  Later albums by Antony & The Johnsons have actually received higher marks by reviewers, but I am a Bird Now is my favorite. Brilliant.

Robert Wyatt was the original drummer for the 60’s band Soft Machine and was one of the two original founding members to embark on a critically acclaimed, eccentric, and rewarding solo career (Kevin Ayers being the other founding member, of course). Whereas Kevin Ayers could almost be lumped in with Syd Barrett (the eccentric and mad original lead singer of Pink Floyd) and cultivated somewhat of the same fan base, Robert Wyatt went down an altogether different path. Strangely personal and yet dream like, his 35+ years of solo releases are nothing short of stunning.

When I read that The Unthanks were releasing an album of Antony & The Johnsons and Robert Wyatt covers, it was a juxtaposition I hadn’t really thought of. Mixing covers of a performer with an operatic voice (Antony) with a performer whose voice comes off as somewhat frail (Wyatt) was curious. The one thing that ties them together is emotion. Both of these performers make you feel their thoughts, highs, lows, and pain. With the release of Diversions, Vol. 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons: Live From the Union Chapel, London The Unthanks have offered up their own brilliant renditions of these songs.

A bit about the music

“You are my Sister” isn’t just one of my favorite Antony & the Johnsons songs – its one of my favorite songs, period. As the track opens up with mournful piano I am transported to that place where music is the cure for all the ills of this life. The vocals are warm and laced with emotion. An extremely difficult song to cover, but masterfully done here.

“For Today I am a Boy” – Another favorite of mine from Antony. This cover starts up with just vocals and well placed piano. Allows the listener to focus on the lyrics. Sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank harmonize brilliantly throughout the song as the full band comes into play. The music fades away and again we are left with vocals and piano. Beautiful.

“Lullaby for Hamza” – is worked into a mood piece, tugging at the heart-strings. The song is written from the perspective of Iraqi woman who gave birth to her son just as the bombs of the first Gulf War began to fall. Keep that in mind as the sad horns come into focus around 2 minutes into the song. Devastating.

“Lisp Service” – This cover version literally brought tears to my eyes. Strings and vocals, make sense of the lyrics filled with hopelessness. The original appeared on Wyatt’s album Dondestan – it is vastly improved here.

“Trouble isn’t my middle name,
Left in peace would make my day.
You started the fire, not me,
Camouflaged in mystery.

Plundering, murdering,
Raiding coast to coast –
Good old days of gore,
And now you tell me
I should learn to deal with you all,
Bow to you and praise the Lords
For everything, everything
You won for us.
After all that was before,
There weren’t no Amnesty International,
Nobody to check you.
Don’t give me that “polis”,
That “rule of law”.”

I typically am very careful about albums that are cover songs – sometimes they work, but sometimes it is a sign of an artist giving their audience stop-gap material. Without question, this album is masterful and in some cases improves upon the original songs. I highly recommend you go out and buy this – you won’t be disappointed.

Verdict: Genius interpretations of Genius artists

Tracklist:

Antony & The Johnsons

  • 01 Bird Gerhl
  • 02 Man is the Baby
  • 03 You Are My Sister
  • 04 For Today I Am A Boy
  • 05 Paddy’s Gone
  • 06 Spiraling

Robert Wyatt

  • 07 Stay Tuned (Anja Garbarek) from Comicopera
  • 08 Dondestan (Wyatt) from Dondestan (revisited)
  • 09 Lullaby for Hamza (Wyatt/Benge) from Cuckooland
  • 10 Lisp Service (Hopper/Wyatt) from Dondestan (revisited)
  • 11 Free Will and Testament (Wyatt/Kramer) from Shleep
  • 12 Out of the Blue (Wyatt/Elfriede Ellidge) from Comicopera
  • 13 Cuckoo Madame (Wyatt/Benge) from Cuckooland
  • 14 Sea Song (Wyatt) from Rock Bottom
  • 15 Forest (excerpt) from Cuckooland
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