Theatre of Voices & Fretwork
Cries of London (Harmonia Mundi)
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As a historical document, this recording is utterly fascinating.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
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
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
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.