At a time when most people have little interest in any history that predates their births, there is still one period of time that inspires cult-like devotion: the Middle Ages. There are Renaissance Faires and jousting clubs and secret societies. And there are devotees of the music, among which are the members of a band called the Mediaeval Baebes, a group of a dozen European women who have resurrected some of the prettiest songs of the thirteenth-century sacred and secular musical traditions.
Perhaps we can credit Enigma -- the Gregorian chant/ambient band who had a hit with "Sadeness" in 1991 -- with reuniting mainstream music audiences with ancient religious music, but the Baebes' debut, Salva Nos (Latin for "Save Us"), goes far beyond Enigma's efforts. Rather than fusing chants with ambient rock forms, these ladies are attempting to recover -- as best they can -- the traditional sound of these beautiful melodies.
The group was assembled by former Miranda Sex Garden frontwoman Katherine Blake, who is a scholar of medieval texts. In a sense, Salva Nos picks up where Miranda Sex Garden's debut, Madra -- a collection of madrigals -- left off. But these are no churchgoing naïfs: The bandmembers describe themselves as "lager-swilling, smoking, cursing, tattooed sex goddesses" (quite a contrast with the refined music they make, in which dulcimers and flutes abound).
In fact, the music on Salva Nos is nothing less than enchanting. The Baebes are not by any means classically trained or operatic singers, but their lack of polish lends the music a warm, rustic feel. This album captures the feeling of being in a sacred cathedral, listening to a heaven-bound choir exorcising its passions through song.
The album opens with a pair of subdued melodies, "Salve Virgo Virginum" and "Now Springes the Spray." The former -- one of several tunes in Latin -- sings the praises of the Virgin Mary for providing salvation for the faithful. "Spray" is mournful, sung in ghostly strains of medieval English. Luckily, the liner notes provide modern-English translations, so we can learn charming things like the fact that "The clot him clinge! Way as him I'love-longings Shall libben ay!" means "May the muddy grave hold him fast! Miserable is he who must always live with the longing of love!"
Flute and tambourine accompany the Baebes on the perky French tune "Ah Si Mon Moine," a ditty about a friar's longing for the dance (it provides relief from the dirges). "Verbum Caro" also lightens the mood, while honoring the Virgin Birth for its power to make the Word of God flesh.
Salva Nos closes with two songs that reveal what might have been the punk side of medieval music. In harsh tones, "This Ay Nicht" condemns those who "gavest hosen or schon" (this is the only song for which there is no translation) to punishment: "the winnies shall prick thee to the bare bone -- and Christ receive thy soul." On "Miri It Is," the Baebes sing in round-robin fashion about the importance of savoring summer's loveliness before the horrible winter comes. The verses become ever more dizzying and threatening as the canon builds with rhythm and hand-claps, ending with resounding drumbeats that leave the listener wanting more.
It's possible that the bawdy personalities of the Mediaeval Baebes (who are unfortunately compared too often to their labelmates, the Spice Girls) will attract listeners who might not otherwise be interested in an album like this. If you enjoy Dead Can Dance -- or possibly even Loreena McKennitt and Enya -- you should find yourself at home with this music.
After the Baebes shook up the U.K., it's good to see Virgin finally releasing this album in America -- even though its beauty could easily be lost in the pre-millennium shuffle.