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London Calling

By B.A. Nilsson

Theatre of Voices & Fretwork

The Cries of London (Harmonia Mundi)

One of the characteristics of street life in London from the 15th century until not too long ago was the abundance of peddler’s calls, or cries. We know them, if we know them at all, through songs like “Molly Malone” and “Any Rags, Any Bones, Any Bottles Today.” But the London of Shakespeare’s time was, we’re told, a cacophony of such cries. Contemporaneous composers heard and captured these cries, in settings as varied as can be imagined in the context of those times.

The work of six 17th-century composers is imaginatively interpreted in this latest release from the tireless Paul Hillier, who leads the combined forces of Theatre of Voices (of which he is artistic director) and Fretwork, a sextet of period instrumentalists.

As a historical document, this recording is utterly fascinating. The performances bring to life a little-heard aspect of life way back then, as reimagined by such well-known tunesmiths as Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Ravenscroft and Thomas Weelkes, each of whom is far better known for other compositions. As a recording just to be enjoyed by 21st-century ears, it’s also successful. There’s nothing else like it out there, and it certainly will open your ears to a style of playing and singing that remains timeless.

Gibbons’ “The Cries of London” sets the stage for the disc. It’s a seven-minute, two-part work that seeks to give us a feeling of the total panoply of London street sounds, from dawn to dusk. Mussels and haddock are hawked alongside ink and tobacco; oysters are sold, breadstuffs are begged in a complex framework of song that manages at once to be an artistic piece and (I’m trusting) a reasonable facsimile of what was out there.

Ravenscroft’s best-known work, “The Three Ravens,” shows a new side of itself in this context; Gibbons is also represented by his famous “Go From My Window.” For more of that streetside flavor, however, compare Weelkes’s lively yet more intimate “The Cries of London” to Richard Dering’s breathtaking confection “The City Cries.” I’m astonished to learn just how many of this kind of setting were written!

Michael East’s contribution is a set of bright madrigals. Plenty of variety informs what could have been an hour’s worth of the same kind of stuff, and it’s all terrifically livened by the expert and enthusiastic performances—nothing less than we’ve grown to expect from these performing groups, but nevertheless reassuring.

Califone

Roomsound (Thrill Jockey)

This is a reissue of Califone’s 2001 debut. From the outset, the band have seamlessly melded earthly and organic instincts with experimental proclivities. A trio featuring multi-instrumentalists Tim Rutili, Brian Deck and Ben Massarella, Califone sound like time travelers digging for gold with ancient implements made of chiseled stone alongside contemporary titanium tools designed for ergonomic ease. If this band were a house, they’d be a great big rustic porch adhered to an igloo-sized geodesic dome. “Bottles & Bones” is a mysterious hymn, draped in background vocals, atmospheric echoes and the passionately committed singing of lines like “Forget your sweet decline, this is the longest goodbye.” Califone find the poetry in language and in sound, mixing them together into something timelessly musical.

—David Greenberger

Shearwater

Palo Santo (Misra)

The fourth album by Shearwater opens sounding something like its predecessors, as a piano maps out gentle chords. At least, that’s how it is for the first minute. As the second minute rolls in, Jonathan Meiburg’s vocals push past the edges of his register and lung capacity, followed by the addition of atmospheric soundscapes. Enter the rest of the band, and it builds over the course of its five-minute duration into veritable sonic overture for all that follows. Up next is “Red Sea, Black Sea,” which opens with a simple drum beat and an instrumental arrangement that calls to mind Fred Frith’s pop songs. Over the course of the disc there are shades of John Cale, the more consciously arranged highlights of San Francisco psych-era bands, and the dreamstate dramatics of American Music Club. A track-by-track tour through all 11 numbers is not necessary; suffice to say that what started as a sort of side project for Meilburg and Will Sheff, bandmates in Okkervil River, has sprouted wings barely hinted at prior.

—David Greenberger


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