Roomful of Teeth: Roomful of Teeth
New Amsterdam Records

Roomful of Teeth's self-titled debut album reveals the outfit to be less a polite classical choir than a virtuosic vocal octet (directed by Brad Wells, who founded the ensemble in 2009) whose exuberant renderings of the composers' works makes for exhilarating listening. While all of the group's members bring classical training to the project, they also dramatically enrich its vocal dimension by drawing upon gospel, Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, Inuit throat singing, and techniques originating from Sardinia and Korea. The collection presents thirteen pieces by seven composers, including settings by New Amsterdam co-directors Judd Greenstein, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and William Brittelle as well as four by group member Caroline Shaw. While most of the pieces are wordless, three by the co-directors are lyrics-based.

No small amount of practice had to have been involved in the production process, given the complexity of the vocal arrangements—consider the intricate pathways navigated so expertly by the singers during Brittelle's “Amid the Minotaurs” and Shaw's “Allemande” as two examples of many. Throughout the seventy-four-minute set, voices blend into full-bodied wholes with the same apparent ease as when they separate from one another to take solo flight. A major part of the group's sonic appeal is its large timbral range, with two soaring sopranos grounded by baritone, bass baritone, and bass voices.

Memorable moments are plentiful, from the ecstatic gospel episodes in “Amid the Minotaurs” and the mournful emoting of Caleb Burhans' “No” to Shaw's “Passacaglia,” which sees the group alternating between delicate reserve and aggressive attack, and Rinde Eckert's “Cesca's View,” where yodeling rings out with all the declamatory force of a clarion call. Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs) contributes two especially arresting settings, “Quizassa” and “Ansa Ya,” whose punchy rhythms and powerhouse vocal interplay draw upon African and Inuit vocal traditions.

At times, the album's bold arrangements call Meredith Monk to mind (she's cited, in fact, in the credits as one of the group's inspirations), reinforcing the notion that Roomful of Teeth's approach is more rooted in modern-day experimentalism than the classical conventions of yore. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to state that the group re-writes the vocal rulebook to some degree in light of the remarkable panoply of styles and effects documented on the recording. Needless to say, the recording is another strong addition to New Amsterdam's stellar catalogue, a label that seems to go from strength to strength with each new release.

November 2012