Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Trio Mediaeval

Picture a boys' choir echoing through a vaulted Gothic cathedral, a minstrel serenading his lady fair or nuns chanting behind convent walls -- all possible settings for medieval music, though we don't know precisely how it was performed. But you could savor the austere yet beguiling beauties of millennium-old fare Sunday, when the women of the Trio Mediaeval sang their way, without instruments, through an evening of Christmas selections at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

An a cappella concert demands much from singers, and the trio, a cluster of Scandinavians, had it all. Clad in handsome but stern black-and-white gowns enlivened by pastel appliques, they showed why their voices are drawing crowds, usurping the popularity once enjoyed by Anonymous 4. Their Christmas program centered on the voluminous medieval repertoire glorifying the Virgin Mary (when devotion to her and the celebration of courts of love reached their peak).

The trio made this music come wonderfully alive in a performance that was all but flawless. The concert's first half featured European carols arranged for the group in Norwegian translations. The second featured arrangements of traditional Norwegian songs. Most of the pieces had three separate melodic lines, and the singers clearly listen to each other, constantly adjusting for a creamy blend, consistent balance and faultless intonation. Their pure sound resembles the timbre of a vibratoless boys' choir yet a bit warmer. Phrases taper off to totally aligned cadences, and tempos are spicy.

-- Cecelia Porter

Sean Paul

Near the midpoint of his 90-minute 9:30 club concert on Sunday, Sean Paul asked women with large breasts to toss their cell-phone numbers onto the stage for the "after party." Little pieces of paper started flying toward the dancehall superstar, and they continued to fall at his feet for the rest of the show. A dutiful hype man gathered up the digits. Based on the high volume scooped up, Paul's going to be hit with major roaming charges.

But "roaming" is something that he's used to: A large percentage of Paul's songs are about hooking up, and the women in the audience ate up his "dutty rock." The way the well-buffed Paul winds his hips could give Shakira a run for her pole-dancing money, and the females screamed like schoolgirls every time he shimmied his pelvis or made a shout-out to the "sexy ladies." Some were even more demonstrative: Before "Shake That Thing," a woman flashed her chest from the balcony, and just after the tune a giant red bra soared onto the stage.

In his flat, drony voice, Paul dispatched two of his biggest hits, "Like Glue" and "Gimme the Light," early in the set so he could get right into promoting his uneven new CD, "The Trinity." While that CD's catchy first single, "We Be Burnin'," rivals anything off his 2002 breakthrough album, "Dutty Rock," most of the other songs, like "Head in the Zone," "Send It On" and "I'll Take You There," are monotonous dancehall bangers, not crossover hits.

"Never Gonna Be the Same" is one of Paul's few tunes that's not about being a playah. Dedicated to reggae singer Daddigon, who was gunned down in January, Paul dropped his loverman shtick and delivered a heartfelt rendition of one of best songs from "The Trinity." But as soon as the tune was over, phone numbers peppered the stage and it was right back to party time.

-- Christopher Porter

Des Ark

Those who enjoyed "Loose Lips Sink Ships," the first album from Des Ark, and decided to check out the band at the Black Cat on Sunday night probably got a little shock when the music started. Plopped onto a stool on the floor in front of the Cat's Backstage, singer Aimee Argote cradled an acoustic guitar, while drummer Tim Herzog (and his kit) was nowhere to be seen.

"This is Des Ark. It used to be that, now it's this. It happens." Argote offered that cryptic explanation among an overflow of rambling talk that lasted as long as the handful of acoustic songs she played during the brief set. "Loose Lips" does open and close with hushed acoustic meditations, but its bulk is a spiderland of thudding drums and spiraling indie-rock guitar patterns. Now, though, Argote apparently favors the I'm-so-emotionally-full-I-need-to-write-a-song-in-which-I-almost-cry-just-like-Conor-Oberst approach. Crawling through a series of compositions that sounded very much like an overdose of Bright Eyes circa "Fevers and Mirrors," she occasionally laid her chin on her guitar as she sang in doleful rumination.

The stories of love and sex turned inside-out were uninteresting, and her banter wasn't any better. Whatever forward momentum Argote had established as part of a rock duo now seems mostly erased, her Ark drifting rudderlessly.

-- Patrick Foster

Cantate Chamber Singers

Every year, the repetition of 20 or so Christmas chestnuts by radio stations and retailers creates an audience desperate for less familiar songs that still evoke the joy and reflection of the season. The Cantate Chamber Singers presented just such a program Sunday afternoon under their music director, Gisele Becker, at the Mansion at Strathmore.

It was especially good to hear them perform Benjamin Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols." The work uses medieval texts and tunes as its basic material, but Britten's arrangements of the carols for sopranos, altos and harp take already craggy melodies and add subtle 20th-century dissonances and rhythmic dislocations. This removes some surface prettiness but leaves the music sounding awesome and strange. The Cantate performance found the sternness in "Deo gracias" and made "In Freezing Winter Night" feel tremblingly cold. The "Ceremony of Carols" still has plenty of beautiful moments, as the Cantate performance made eminently clear; particularly lovely were the "Spring Carol" and Marian Rian Hayes's ruminative reading of Britten's solo harp interlude.

The rest of the program featured "Carols From Many Countries," including unfamiliar works, such as the gorgeous French carol "Quelle Est Cette Odeur Agreable?" ("What Is This Lovely Fragrance?"), and works that are familiar in other guises, such as the original Welsh version of "Deck the Halls." Despite the Mansion's acoustics, which do not flatter the human voice, and despite a few slip-ups that were highlighted as a result, it was a treat to hear such stylish performances of little-heard works in such an intimate setting.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Three 6 Mafia And Dem Franchize Boyz

Assembling a team of rappers from different groups and labels to record a posse cut isn't all that tricky. The logistics of bringing together those same individuals for a live show, however, can be nightmarish. When artists are forced to perform such tracks with an incomplete cast, they risk retarding the flame of a blazing record, as was the case with Tennessee's Three 6 Mafia and Atlanta's Dem Franchize Boyz at Crossroads on Sunday night.

Both Southern rap squads have monster singles out that contain a slew of lyrics contributed by outside rappers. Three 6 Mafia's "Stay Fly," with its stuttering chorus and twitching drums, includes verses from Eightball and MJG and Young Buck, and the Dem Franchize Boyz chart-topping remix of "I Think They Like Me" features Jermaine Dupri, Da Brat and Bow Wow.

With every one of those guest stars absent, both outstanding hits were delivered in disappointing abridged versions.

Three 6 Mafiosos DJ Paul, Juicy J and Crunchy Black sprinted through an assortment of their volcanic club tracks, mostly from this year's "Most Known Unknown" and 2003's "Da Unbreakables." Although "Who Run It," "Tear Da Club Up '97" and "Ridin Spinners" excited the crowd, their quickie performance of "Stay Fly" was unfulfilling.

Dem Franchize Boyz entertained with "White Tee," the 2004 song that inspired young men everywhere to swap their throwback jerseys for tri-packs of T-shirts, and their new single "Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It," from their upcoming sophomore album, "On Top of Our Game." But with "I Think They Like Me," the remix that helped land the group its deal with the So So Def label, they gave just a stingy sample of the complete song.

-- Sarah Godfrey

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