Discovered by Barry Adamson singing madrigals for shillings on Portobello Road and used in his Delusion soundtrack, London’s Miranda Sex Garden didn’t have to change their tune when the rarely backwards-looking Mute Records signed the three young women to inject a little old-fashioned Art into the business of modern music. Armed with an attractive look, an adequately hip attitude, a provocative name — it’s hard to imagine the home of Einstürzende Neubauten, Wire and Depeche Mode showing as much interest in a blandly titled bunch of middle-aged enthusiasts from some jerkwater church group — and a sheaf of 17th century English songs, music students Jocelyn West, Kelly McCusker and Katharine Blake first held forth on Madra, a collection of reverent a cappella renditions of such ancient oldies as “It Was a Lover and His Lass,” “Though My Carriage Be but Careless” and “Away, Thou Shalt Not Love Me.”
After that offbeat start, the group began developing towards contemporary rock. West left and was replaced by singer/violist Donna McKevitt; guitarist/organist Ben Golomstock and drummer Trevor Sharpe joined; McCusker and Blake brought out their violins, and the group collectively wrote four of the five songs that comprise the exploratory Iris. The group’s muse wasn’t quite ready to be set free, however: the lyrics are precious little poems that could have been punched out by some Romantic madlib computer, the melodies merely a trellis on which to weave the intricate harmonies. Efforts to mount a pop-group sound (as in “Fear”) are too rarefied to breathe, while the pointillist exercise “Falling” and the all-atmosphere “Blue Light” pluck hovering cascades of voices and instruments out of the air without benefit of forward momentum. Unbearable.
The quintet got its bearings, however, and emerged on Suspiria as an intriguing, challenging art felon dancing eccentrically near the fringes of goth. Reconfiguring itself for each song, MSG shifts comfortably between string-driven rock and more exotic mixtures, allowing the three soaring sopranos — which are capable of summoning up memories of both ’70s progressives Renaissance and a sedated Diamanda Galás — to dominate regardless. Now capable of revving up a blustery cloud of edgy energy, the group also has a firm grip on silence: Nick Cave’s nicotined fingers seem to be riding the narcoleptic controls of “My Funny Valentine.” (The album’s other cover is a song from Eraserhead.)
McCusker was the next to go. As if to compensate for her departure, MSG rented a bass guitarist and got Neubauten’s Alex Hacke to produce Fairytales of Slavery. The confident, adventurous and loud rock record sets Blake’s ethereal voice against lumbering rhythms, sonic pattycake and driving electric textures. (Hacke’s industrial bandmate, F.M. Einheit, plays guest “drill” on one song, and “stones” on another.) Blake’s lyrics still don’t amount to much — for all the album’s titular and graphic provocation, “A Fairytale About Slavery” is an idle and innocuous six-line inquiry, while the wordless vocals of “The Monk Song” are more suggestive and gripping than any literal singing here — but the sensual power of the Mirandas’ fervent music is fantastic.
Mediaeval Baebes is a Blake spinoff project.