The Unthanks – Diversions Volume 3: Songs from the Shipyards

Album Review by Jen Bowden | 09 Nov 2012
Album title: Diversions Volume 3: Songs from the Shipyards
Artist: The Unthanks
Label: RabbleRouser Music
Release date: 5 November

Views of the wasted ghost ships at Seaton and the tankers chugging out of Tees dock typified every trip to the coast for those of us living in the shadow of the once-great shipbuilding industry. Little is heard nowadays of life at the shipyards, or the people who lived it, but in Diversions Vol. 3: Songs from the Shipyards The Unthanks have resurrected history.

After a digression into the music of John Wyatt and a brief flirtation with champion British brass band Brighouse and Rastrick in previous Diversions volumes, Songs takes The Unthanks back to their original five-piece line up.

In a collaboration with Tyneside Cinema, the band have created the soundtrack to North East filmmaker Richard Fenwick’s exploration of love, loss and life at sea in British shipbuilding towns. The result is a pared-down, reflective album, but one that lacks the clout of character that defined their earlier records.

The contemplative prelude, The Romantic Tees, introduces Adrian McNally’s lone piano motif against a backdrop of dockside sounds. Vocal harmonies build through The Great Northern River and Black Trade only to contrast with Rachel’s unaccompanied solo in Fairfield Crane, creating a naked exposé of the harsh realities of life by the docks.

A mixture of live and studio recordings, Songs... lacks the buzz of previous Unthanks albums. Fairfield Crane is easily the most touching track as musical simplicity exposes harrowing lyrics. But even it doesn’t quite reach the heart-wrenching humanity-laid-bare tones of The King of Rome or the subtle pain of Trimdon Grange Explosion that characterised the second Diversions volume.

The most remarkable moments come when the childlike voices of Rachel and Becky take centre stage, fashioning life from the lyrics. Nowhere is this truer than in McNally’s self-penned ode, The Romantic Tees, which falls short in the first two plodding movements, but draws deep shivers from the earthy call of the female vocals in the third.

Twee repetition in Only Remembered ties the whole thing up in too neat a package for it to truly resonate as an album about reality. The whole thing lacks the richness of Brighouse’s mellow brass, the melancholy energy of Blackbird or the fiddle-and-horn harmonies of earlier gems like Starless.

Ultimately, Songs from the Shipyards is a move back to basics and, admittedly, the barren sound resonates well with the uncanny lyrics. As a film soundtrack it is an emotive, image-ridden heart-breaker, but as an stand-alone listen it too easily fades, like it’s ghosts, into the background.