Unless you have already seen and heard Roomful of Teeth live, there is little to prepare you for the effect of this avant-garde a cappella octet from New York. Well, actually, there’s a lot to prepare you – if you’ve heard, say, the chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks, and Bobby McFerrin’s Circlesong improvisations, and John Cage’s Songbook, and the Swingle Singers – and, let’s say, pygmy yodeling and Meredith Monk – then you’re good to go. Roomful of Teeth creates a richly-textured sound that uses a seemingly endless palette of vocal techniques: overtone chant, rhythmic clicks and buzzes, luminous chords and piercing Balkan-style close harmonies, drones, and spoken word (usually to found texts). In the wrong hands, this kind of thing could be dangerous, but Roomful of Teeth has fallen in with the right crowd.
Released by New Amsterdam Records, which has become a home for the so-called indie-classical movement, the group’s debut release includes new works written specifically for the band by some of that movement’s leading lights, including composers Judd Greenstein, William Brittelle, Sarah Kirkland Snider and indie rocker Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs. With such a distinguished list of guest composers, it might be a little surprising to find that some of the record’s highlights come from the group’s own Caroline Shaw, whose suite of pieces named after Baroque dance forms (Passacaglia, Courante, Allemande and Sarabande) is a tour de force of vocal mischief-making, with collage-style spoken texts woven into a web of singing, semi-singing, and other less easily identified vocal noises. Again, in the wrong hands it would be a mess, but Roomful of Teeth is never less than completely musical, even lyrical.
Snider’s “Orchard” is sensuous and beautiful, and possibly a little darker than it seems at first. Greenstein’s works are the most reliably rhythmic and will appeal to fans of Meredith Monk; this particular Meredith Monk fan thinks “Montmartre” might be the best of the three. And Brittelle’s “Amid the Minotaurs,” on the surface one of the most conventionally-structured pieces here, is a truly subversive piece of anti-pop.