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Mediaeval Babes - Undrentide Print E-mail
Tuesday, 12 September 2000

Mediaeval Babes
format: CD
label: Nettwerk Records
release year: 2000
performance: 9
sound 8
reviewed by: Dan MacIntosh

ImageI came across this album (and this act) quite by chance. Listening to British classical station Classic FM on the Internet one day, I heard an incredible harmony-laden contemporary treatment of some medieval English lyrics. It turned out to be one of the few occasions on which this station has played a track from the Baebes latest album, Undrentide (probably a Middle English word for "midday"). Although it contains mediaeval lyrics (and sometimes mediaeval music), Undrentide is probably not an album that would normally be played on a classical station.

I bought the albums on a recent trip to the UK (there they are on three different labels, Undrentide being on RCA Victor/BMG Classical) through, where they are listed in the classical section. Here, lists them under "popular" and they are all on Nettwerk. I like things that are hard to put into neat little categories, but it does mean you have to look a little harder sometimes.

The twelve lively female singers who make up the Baebes came together following a chance meeting in 1996 between classically-trained Katharine Blake, lead singer of the rather strange Miranda Sex Garden (whose music, beloved of the more exotic members of the UK population, is – with one exception: the first album, Madra – entirely unlike this), and mediaeval music devotee Dorothy Carter in a Berlin club. Back in London, Blake persuaded her friends to assemble and sing her arrangements of mediaeval songs, leading to a churchyard neo-Goth debut and two albums that topped the UK classical charts: Salva Nos in 1997 and Worldes Blysse in 1998.

All three albums (a fourth is close to release as I write, and who knows where that will take them) are well worth a listen. Salve Nos is the simplest, largely a capella; Worldes Blysse is a more developed album with more instrumentation; and Undrentide is the most eclectic of the lot, under the surprising production guidance of veteran of the avant-garde John Cale. This current album goes all the way from pure harmonious a capella pieces like "Summerisle" and the sultry, hypnotic, interwoven harmonies (in "Now welcom somer" for example) that have become the Baebes’ hallmark, to electronica with samples, drum loops and synths, as if Cale was encouraging Blake to head back towards the Sex Garden’s industrial period. Sometimes the technology helps. Often it isn’t there. Sometimes it gets in the way, and the sound can be a little tacky (which is why the sound only gets an 8). If you feel there’s too much of the latter, you should check out Worldes Blysse.

Yet throughout, for me at least, the magic is still there, often pure as before, and sometimes overlaid with other far more modern influences – and in many ways, almost paradoxically, Undrentide is the most accessible of all the albums to date, due precisely to that broadness of reach.

An enormous foldout in the back of the inlay booklet shows pictures of the Baebes (if you want more, the book "Songs of the Flesh" by Vania Zouravliov may show you more than you bargained for) in variously outrageous costumes, while the rest of the booklet provides the original lyrics (in Italian, Mediaeval French, Middle English and mediaeval German, among others) with translations.

Most of the time, the music is Blake’s or one of the other, equally multi-talented Baebes – hardly surprising, as popular music of the Middle Ages was only relatively occasionally notated in a way that we can readily access – but once in a while a song comes along where both the words and music have made it into the 21st century and we get a taste of something very ancient.

I enjoy both "purist" renderings of early music, and also those, as we find here, that take on board contemporary influences – after all, one of my formative sound engineering experiences was working with "mediaeval rock band" Gryphon in the Seventies. If you have similarly eclectic taste, you’ll like this album, and probably the others.

And, verily, the Baebes are most pleasing to look at, forsooth…

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