The New World Renaissance Band,
Where Beauty Moves and Wit Delights
(Nightwatch Recording, 1993)

Growing up on Charley Pride and Johnny Cash, then later discovering the joys of Billy Joel and the ultimate of British invasion bands, the Kinks, Celtic- and Renaissance-inspired music was always relatively low on my radar scope. That is, until March 1995 or so, when I stopped at a music merchant's table at Texas A&M University's annual AggieCon. Looking through their SF soundtracks, I noticed they had tons of discs from such odd-sounding bands as Silly Wizard, Altan, etc. For the hell of it, I asked if any of it was any good. Well, duh, the answer was pretty obvious. So my next question was "What's a good band to start with?" They gave me The New World Renaissance Band. Good move.

Made up of Owain Phyfe and the members of the popular Texas Renaissance Festival group Cantiga, The New World Renaissance Band does what no other Renaissance musical group does -- mainly, take music and elevate it to high art. Each piece is masterfully crafted and arranged so that there is a fullness in the music that suggests full orchestration, even though that's nowhere near the case. There's a confident dignity here that demands attention.

All of the tracks here are traditional, but many of them are quite obscure, and aren't restricted to English-speaking countries. The opening piece, "Fuggi, Fuggi, Fuggi," is sung in the original Italian, but the buoyancy of the lyrics and music render its incomprehensibility moot, and make it a perfect choice to start things off. In a nice touch, the Italian lyrics are included in the liner notes, along with a line-by-line translation. This is repeated for the other foreign-language songs as well.

The Scottish "In a Garden So Green" is a heartfelt offering to the singer's "lusty love," which is not remotely bawdy, and rather moving. "Helas Madame," attributed to King Henry VIII, picks up the pace just a bit, and sounds like it would be exactly the kind of chamber music you would hear in a royal court during the Renaissance. The same holds true for Cantiga No. 48, from the court of Alfonzo X. The frolicking instrumental piece conjures images of an energetic dance in a noble's grand ballroom.

Greek mythology provided the basis for "Daphne," a 16th-century English piece about the nymph Daphne who was turned into a laurel while being pursued by Apollo. The airy melody is quite pleasant, and ably carries Daphne's lament. "Wee Be Soldiers Three" sets up an ominous undercurrent of threat, but this is understated and doesn't overwhelm the song. The cadence of the lyrics, and arrangement of the percussion does a very good job of creating a military atmosphere and rhythm that, although not quite marchable, certainly sound like it should be.

The 15th century sephardic piece, "A La Una Yo Naci," evokes a lonesome mood, with mournful melodies and instrumentation that are not unlike the incidental music from the Rankin-Bass production of The Hobbit. The translated lyrics "I was born at 1 o'clock/By 2 o'clock I had grown up/At 3 I took a lover/(And) at 4 I was wed," take on a melancholy air as the singer praises a girl he has just met. The loneliness is apparent all the way through the song, and you hope the singer gets the girl.

Every piece here is a keeper, from "Maid of Bedlam" to "Since First I Saw Your Face." None of the selections are Irish, and the inclusion of French and Italian songs underscores the differences in the different traditions. The style here is very romanticized, and Phyfe's voice is rich and mournful, perfect for the selections. The instrumentation, too, is brilliant, a well-struck balance of Phyfe's vihuela, Bob Bielefeld's recorders, Malcolm Smith's fiddle, rebec and mandoline, Martha Gay's harp and Max Dyer's cello and viola. There's a somber sadness to much of the music here, as well as a somber joy. Seldom is such a sound captured in a studio, but The New World Renaissance Band has succeeded admirably.

[ by Jayme Lynn Blaksche ]