In the promotional video (see below) for the opening track of their third album, Thamesis, Mishaped Pearls make use of footage of riverside locations in a summery collection of early colour film – visually harking back to a post-war idyll. It’s a fitting representation for an album that certainly does hark back, but much further than the mid twentieth-century riparian delights in the video. Thamesis has more than a hint of the ancient about it, not least because of the spine-tingling mezzo-soprano vocals of Manuela Schuette, who lists influences as diverse as Franz Schubert and Gorillaz . But the album looks to the future as much as it does to the past, and there’s far more to Mishaped Pearls than distinctive vocals. Thamesis can be a fast flowing tidal bore or a tumbling brook; as wide and wild as an estuary or as carefully defined as a canal. It revels in a sense of timelessness, as archaic as the river itself and as pioneering as its famous London flood defences.
Songwriter / musician Ged Flood and multi-lingual, classically trained singer Manuela Schuette formed Mishaped Pearls in 2009. Following a successful album release (The Singer and The Poets) they toured in the UK, found a warm welcome and a new audience in France, and in 2011 released Le Puy en Velay. In today’s release of Thamesis, Mishaped Pearls have presented something of a departure from their earlier albums, I’m told. Bringing on board Gerry Diver as producer will certainly encourage an exploration of new horizons. Gerry’s work with Lisa Knapp and Sam Lee (among many others) and his ground-breaking Speech Project have proved his exceptional ability to enhance musical and vocal forms. Adding to the overall richness of sound, Gerry has employed the peerless mastering skills of Denis Blackham at Skye Mastering; who retires this month after 45 years of outstanding work.
Thamesis is my introduction to the music of Mishaped Pearls, the first of their albums I’ve heard. So covering its release has presented an intriguing opportunity… to hear a band create something new with no prior knowledge of their music. So I eschewed my habit of examining back-catalogue and framing the latest release in reference to what’s come before – making comparisons and tracking development. In the case of Mishaped Pearls, I rather like the idea of allowing the fresh ideas wash over me, and contemplate the album entirely on its own merits.
In the opening track, Old Father Thames, it’s Manuela Schuette’s arresting vocal performance that, following the song’s dreamy dulcimer opening, first grabs your attention; and it very much sets the tone. Old Father Thames is the first of five new songs Ged Flood has written for the album. Influenced by people and life experiences, his songs are as adept at discussing life in the modern world as they are at painting pictures of a world gone by. A summer spent as a lock-keeper inspired Ged Flood’s journey along a stretch of the Thames in Oxfordshire and ending at Sonning, near Reading in Berkshire. A soaring violin of contrasts a steady pace that could sooth for an eternity, as Thamesis takes the listener on a journey that promises a singularly fascinating experience.
When singing, Manuela Schuette succeeds, admirably, in avoiding being confined to her training. A classically trained mezzo-soprano cannot be something that gets shrugged off lightly, but in the second of Ged’s offerings, Cornish Girl, Manuela shows us that she can sing in a less structured form just as effectively. Still pitch perfect of course, but with a more gentle, relaxed delivery that, when layered into harmonies, sails over the strings.
Ged and Manuela are every bit as accomplished at adapting traditional songs as they are at creating original material. Based on a dark Irish murder tale Polly Vaughn; and in contrast to the summery dreams of Ged’s opening numbers, Jimmy is driven along by relentless strings, lifted by a pulsing bass and sung with all the drama of a Shakespearian tragedy.
The crafting of the songs themselves is every bit as accomplished as their delivery. Manuela’s love of ancient poetry has fuelled her adaptation of the traditional tales, with the result that the lyrics bear an authentic voice, steeped in history. In Three Ravens, for instance, where Manuela softens her classical vocals to a gently lilting echo, a deceptively up-tempo arrangement supports lyrics that could easily be taken for the original 17th Century ballad on which it was based…
She got him up upon her back
And carried him to earthen lake
She buried him before the prime
She was dead herself by evensong time
The power of Ged Flood’s ability as a song-writer is just as effectively utilised, and nowhere more so than in his epic tale of supernatural seduction, Tamesis. The perfectly enunciated lyrics add to the ethereal mystery of the story…
He follows her down to the river
Her sweet scent rides on the wind
She washes her hair in the sunlight
Then smiles and beckons him in
A combination of light strings and birdsong takes on a far darker, turbulent persona with percussion and sampled strings churning up a storm to pull the hapless suitor below the surface to his ecstatic fate.
Electronics aren’t a prominent feature of the album by any means, but their use hasn’t been excluded. In the right hands they offer tools that can effectively inject atmosphere and tension into a tale. In Six Dukes the modern approach combines with the plaintive voice of the storyteller, eerie strings and stratified chorus in a gruesome tale that stands out for a number of captivating reasons. A dark, sinister opening with a mournful cello and an unexpected, spectral tenor vocal from Ged Flood, that betrays a far more versatile voice than is immediately apparent.
As for Ged’s other compositions, with more contemporary origins, they still sound perfectly at home among the traditional fayre. In Doves, Ged provides the lead vocal again as the song’s ebb and flow teases the emotions. The poetic Fledgling sails as close to a standard song structure as the album is likely to, with guitar and vocal embellished by the rich production that’s such a warm feature of the album as a whole.
And it is the album as a whole that leaves you feeling so impressed. It’s the blending of inspiration, influences and material from a multitude of origins and the creation from those of a perfectly unified piece of work that’s so impressive. As if to underline this, the final song on the album is one for which I can justify some scrutiny and comparison. Ralph McTell’s First and Last Man enjoys a special place in many people’s hearts. Re-worked and renamed as First And Last Woman, this song could have been written for Manuela’s lofty, elegant vocals and brings the album to a towering, anthemic conclusion. Taken in context, the feeling is very much one of a river reaching the sea.
Thamesis ebbs and flows like a tide. It’s a wholly remarkable album and utterly worthy of the praises that are heaped upon it from many quarters.
In addition to Ged Flood (acoustic and tenor guitars, saz baglama, tenor banjo, mandolin, bass, bodhran, charango, percussion, vocals), Manuela Schuette (vocals) and Gerry Diver (violin, piano, bass, tenor guitar, banjo, ukulele, dulcimer, slide guitar, loops), the full list of contributors reads like a who’s who of classical and new music in the London area: Calie Hough (hand drums, percussion) Naomi Burgoyne (cello, vocals) plus Andrew Sleightholme, Tom Finigan, Massimo Troiani, Sean Harrington (vocals) Patricia Ramirez Rienoso (viola) Josephine Lloyd (violin) Maria Ryan (violin) and Elspeth MacLeod (violin).
Sure, Manuela Schuette’s voice captivates from the outset, Gerry Diver’s production is at its finest and Ged Flood’s vision is enthralling; but it’s the work as a whole that commands attention – not one particular element of it.
It’s clear that Mishaped Pearls are as dexterous as anyone can be at blending the disparate influences they’ve brought to the studio from the worlds of folk, classical and modern music and story. Thamesis is the highly polished, exquisitely crafted end product that originated from a rich vein of song, story and talent. In tapping that vein, Mishaped Pearls have provided their audience with a body of work that not only celebrates its origins, it confirms the exceptional skills of its creators and earns them a place among those who make a significant contribution to the rich diversity of music we treasure.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Upcoming Live Dates
13 – St Pancras Old Church, London
19 – The Pelton Arms, London
27 – Harwich Arts Festival, St Nicholas Church, Harwich, Essex
17 – FolkEast Folk Festival