The Unthanks have shrunk. Less than half the size of previous incarnations (since 2009 they’ve hovered at around ten members at any one time), the band behind Diversions Vol 3 is leaner, meaner. There are only five of them.
The third release in what is, at the moment, a trilogy of side projects, Diversions Vol 3 is a score written for a new film by Richard Fenwick, Songs from the Shipyards, tracing the history of the shipbuilding industry using a compilation of archive footage. But even alone, the album’s jigsaw puzzle mix of song, spoken word and shipyard sound is a haunting folk portrait of a community bearing the emotional and physical weight of industry.
The intimacy of the freshly cut-back band distils the power of a capella showstopper ‘Fairfield Crane’, performed with characteristic sharpness by Rachel Unthank. Jez Lowe’s ‘Taking on Men’ becomes a short and bittersweet recession anthem, immediate as carol singers at your front door, while a cover of ‘Shipbuilding’ is equally focused but rounded out with a lush arrangement, almost choral.
At just a nudge under ten minutes long, ‘The Romantic Tees’ is comparatively expansive, a mix of spoken word, working boat launch sounds and song in three parts, with a patchwork feel. With Graeme Miles’ words rejecting romanticisation of the river with an audible raised eyebrow ('The ‘romantic’ Tees?'), producer and ‘deviser’ Adrian McNally finds a break in the at times chocolate box melodies of the album at large.
Elsewhere, sweet, impressionistic lullabies and eerie seaside waltzes are again undercut by lyrics insisting on the reality of declining industry and its impact. Diversions Vol 3 paints an incisive portrait of England’s industrial heritage, even beyond the rivers of the North East.