Thamesis, by Mishaped Pearls
Written by Clay on June 6, 2014
Thamesis, by Mishaped Pearls
I’ve been looking forward to this album, oh so much. For those of you who have not yet heard this group, Mishaped Pearls, I can only say that I envy you as I would love to have the pleasure and amazement of hearing them for the first time all over again. Their sound is distinctive, beautiful and strangely dream-like. Somehow they marry dissonance with harmony, and always remain pitch perfect. They weave classical sounds into some of the oldest English folk ballads and then carefully twist the tapestry, so it looks both familiar and unfamiliar at once. Mishaped Pearls is a seven piece London-based band, which has links all over Europe. The group is led by English songwriter Ged Flood. Flood’s skills as a composer are enormous, but he has too the advantage of being a multi-instrumentalist with a musical imagination that crashes like a wave of inspiration into the dark and dusty corners of our folk traditions. Flood entwines his musical skill around the really extraordinary voice of mezzo-soprano, Manuela Schuette; he is like a jeweller who twists and twines filigree gold to show off the blazing beauty of a single huge, lush, shining stone.
Thamesis is the third album from Mishaped Pearls, a group that takes its name from a translation of the French word ‘Baroque’ which refers to the beauty of a large, irregular and imperfect pearl. We now associate the term ‘Baroque’ with the style of the 17th and 18th centuries: one of florid exuberance and dramatic expression in art. However, it was in fact used much earlier to describe a piece of music. The piece of music in question was an opera by French composer, Rameau, called Hyppolytus and Aricie, based on Racine’s Phedre. The piece startlingly did not belong to the Renaissance. The nice, neatly structured music of the Renaissance, with its pretty, easy melodies and modes, and comfortably blending strands, was replaced in this opera by a shocking blend of constant key changes and atmospheric discords. The Baroque in Europe coincided with a new way of thinking that we now talk of as The Enlightenment, where the emphasis was placed on new ideas rather than old religious dogma, and in which humanity no longer accepted being told what and how to think, but allowed itself to rely on its own good judgement and changing tastes. Thamesis certainly shows a new way of thinking about our traditional folk sounds, and there’s not even a hint of old folk dogma. Thamesis has the beautifully irregular and exuberant combination of chords, discords, key changes and exciting, yet inharmonious sounds that set it apart from the excruciatingly boring, generic and safely unimaginative folk music of which I am sent a great deal. Thamesis would be well described as a huge, lustrous pearl of an album; its undulating, distorted form is its great beauty.
As a collection of songs, they hang together like a delicately balanced mobile; each is different in shape and texture, but when seen as a whole the structure of the album is a work of art in itself. Many are based on traditional folk ballads: Jimmy is a hauntingly beautiful rendition of a traditional folk song called Polly Vaughn, which probably dates from the late 18th Century, but hints at the much older folklore of the swan-maidens of Europe’s forests. Jimmy was the first song from this group that I heard and it struck me as being extraordinary at that first hearing, as it still does now. The shock and wonder here is Ged Flood’s instrumental work, which lurches from the grand scale and drama that I associate with film scores, to jagged chord progressions that tear through the melody like sound effects, and make a curiously beautiful backdrop for Manuela Schuette’s sumptuous voice that rises above all that darkness and discord, and it hovers there, huge and luminous, like a Lily towering in full bloom above a tangle of brambles. Three Ravens, is as dark and cynical as our traditional folk songs get; it is also probably one of our oldest, written down in the early 17th century, but certainly far earlier in origin. Mishaped Pearls gives the song a strange, glowering musical accompaniment that brings the horror in the narrative into sharp relief. Similarly, Six Dukes is much altered from the nursery story tone of the folksy 1969 recording, and becomes a soaring crescendo of lamentation with madrigal layers of voices, all crying out in dismay and grief as the news spreads; the strings and synths saw away underneath until the shaking lone voice of the first narrator is drowned in wave after wave of sorrow, and eventually that too is quietly washed away to sea. Ralph McTell’s First and Last Man is reimagined in The First and Last Woman, and given new life in Manuela Schuette’s beguiling and perfectly womanly voice. These traditional pieces merge themselves effortlessly with Ged Flood’s original pieces. Many of these new works weave the old themes such as water personified (Old Father Thames), or parting lovers (Cornish Girl) with distinctive melodies and vivid narrative to create an effect that is almost theatrical in its energy. This is not folk music preserved in gloopy bitumen, or conserved with pedantic historical accuracy; this is folk music that is alive but slightly ethereal, and is dark but that sparkles like a fast-moving river. The whole show is put together with intelligence and a real depth of knowledge that shows a commitment to the values of Enlightenment. Mishaped Pearls acknowledges that true beauty is both imperfect and slightly disturbing.
You can buy Thamesis from Amazon here http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00ITE10EE
Or you can download it from iTunes here https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/thamesis/id868243860
Find out more about Mishaped Pearls and about performances on their website at http://mishapedpearls.org/ and you can follow them on Facebook for updates https://www.facebook.com/MishapedPearls?fref=ts