The madrigal singers bring a new twist to traditional Christmas carols.
Back in the day – and thinking about it, it really was way back when – I was quite fond of Miranda Sex Garden, who evolved from madrigal singing classicists to darkly gothic rockers who had a connection to both horror cinema (they named their second album Suspiria) and the underground sex scene – the first time I saw them live was at Torture Garden. But the band effectively fizzled out in the middle of the 1990s and leader Katherine Blake took the somewhat unexpected – but probably sensible – step of returning to her roots with the Mediaeval Baebes, who’s modern take on mediaeval music is very much in the tradition of the first MSG album.
And the group, with a floating line-up of classically trained female singers and musicians, has certainly had more mainstream attention, the mix of eccentricity and sexuality just the sort of thing that shifts ‘classical’ music (of which this is a form) to the mass media and the general populous.
This is the group’s second Christmas album, though the first that isn’t a compilation of previously released tracks. And it’s a smart idea, because while we might all love knowing rock revamps of festive tunes or staggeringly kitsch Christmas recordings, there’s something oddly reassuring about a collection of traditional Christmas carols that are presented with a straight face, lacking in attempts at irony or post-modernism.
The music here, played primarily on traditional instruments and sung with angelic sweetness, consists of mostly English carols, some familiar to all (The Holly and the Ivy, Ding Dong Merrily on High, Once in Royal David’s City), others perhaps more obscure – I don’t recall ever singing Ther is No Rose of Swych Vertu or Veni Veni Emmanuel at school assemblies., for instance. The accompanying booklet gives background notes on the songs – handy for Christmas pub trivia!
Musically, the tracks vary – The Angel Gabriel is a cappella, while others – the aforementioned Ding Dong Merrily on High, for example – have a genuine mediaeval feel and a somewhat paganistic fervour. These might be ostensibly Christian hymns, but the Old Religion was never far away in a lot of them, and there’s a certain musical bawdiness to Good King Wenceslas that is rather unexpected, and brings to mind the 1970s folk rock interpretations of olde English songs by the likes of Steeleye Span. That connection is reinforced by the inclusion of a cappella number Gaudete, which of course was a Christmas hit for Steeleye Span in the 1970s. It’s been a while since I heard that version and I don’t have it handy to make a comparison, but this is a fine rendition.
In the Bleak Midwinter is a gentle, slightly melancholic rendition that is oddly comforting and romantic – it almost made me want to put up a Christmas tree just so I could sit listening to this track in the twinkle of the lights. The group’s version of Away in a Manger, on the other hand, is suitably rendered as a lullaby that is quite sweet, but insubstantial. Similarly, In Dulci Jubilo is less up tempo than most versions of the song, and frankly works all the better for it.
The Coventry Carol is one the most cheerless Christmas carols imaginable – a tale of Herod’s mass child slaughter, here in a stripped back, mournful version that probably won’t bring much Christmas cheer to anyone listening. The more worshipful God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is also given a moody rendition, finding a darkness that definitely offers little “comfort and joy”, but is undeniably effective and innovative. Conversely, the somewhat grim Corpus Christi Carol is here given a minimalist sweetness.
Silent Night, however, is given a straight-forward rendition, as perhaps befits this most famous of carols. It’s familiarity can make you forget what a remarkable piece of music, religiously fervent or not, this is and it’s to the credit of the Baebes that they immediately make you aware of this without doing anything especially radical to the arrangement.
Of course, a collection of Christmas carols sung in traditional style won’t be for everyone. But sometimes, it’s nice to actually wallow in the traditions of the season that are older than Slade records. This is a rather lovely album that deserves to be a festive favourite for years to come.