Mediæval Bæbes

Worldes Blysse

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England's Medieval Baebes have taken a great deal of critical flak, in many cases from people who should know better. There is no such thing as a pure interpretation of medieval music; operating at a distance of 700 years or more, all you have is speculation. Plenty of musicians operate at a greater distance from the source material than do the Medieval Baebes. Some operate at less of a distance, but these by and large did not emerge from the world of rock as the Baebes did, and aren't in a position to take the audience for acts like Loreena McKennitt (or simply people who attend medieval fairs) a step closer to the medieval world. And that is all the Medieval Baebes try to do. Don't hate them because they're beautiful. Worldes Blysse was their second album, released in 1999. The original cover in which the 12 singers were enclosed in semicircular thorned branches is gone (although the branches are retained as a kind of motif), replaced by a ridiculous photo in which the Baebes seem to rise out of some kind of goop consisting actually of red silk. And just try to read the text translations from Middle English to modern English, given in white print on, often, a beige background. Graphics aside, nothing musical director Katherine Blake does is particularly outrageous or confrontational. She (and a few other Baebes) write new music to Middle English lyrics, mostly secular. They are rhythmically simpler than real medieval tunes, but tonally they're not objectionably far off, and there are a few actual medieval pieces like the troubadour song "Reis glorios" of the troubadour Giraut de Bornelh, straightforwardly explained as the "alba" or dawn song that it is. The mostly harp-and-percussion accompaniment is not authentic but is consistently applied and is never hokey. Many a medieval group could learn something from the way the percussion is recorded here; it is given a resonant punch that draws the listener in. The singers themselves are well rehearsed and give punchy realizations of some of Blake's more adventurous conceptions (check out the final "How Death Comes"). Plenty of musicians use the skeletons of medieval music that have come down to us as stimuli for further creative activity, but the Baebes apply neither a sentimental pastoralism nor a concept of meditation that's alien to the medieval era. They offer genuine medieval texts, set to medieval-inflected tunes, presented with a bit of the guts the texts deserve. Worldes Blysse should not be your last medieval album (try the group Sequentia if you want to know what medieval musical culture was really all about), but it is certainly a reasonable choice for your first.

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