As we pause for breath in what has been a whirlwind year (so far) for Welsh music, Gary Raymond takes a moment to reflect on the music that’s caught his attention in the first half of 2023.
There’s something going on in Welsh pop music. A sequence of exceptional albums this year from dependable artists has suggested perhaps the fug of lockdown has dissipated, the introversions swapped for expansive records full of ideas, hope, and spirit. More on those albums in a moment, but a defining moment has come out of nowhere in the last week, a single from the most unexpected quarter, a zinger, a banger, a pulsating Euro-stomper with a contagious riff and a lyric that makes the heart race. The artist is Angharad Jenkins, folk musician and fiddle player with Calan, who has a distinguished career in the traditional music scene, and the song is “Because I’m a Woman”. Going now simply by Angharad, this new direction is perhaps not quite as surprising as it first seems. Jenkins has long worked at the edges of expectations, and her love of collaboration has in this instance surrounded her by a great set of musicians, not least razor-sharp funk beats of drummer Alex Burch, and the guiding hand of producer and multi-instrumentalist Aeddan Llewellyn. Ass to that a vital ingredient in this new movement, Libertino Records, and Angharad has a fully rounded support structure for what many labels may have viewed as too sharp-a-turn from folk to pop. The reason why “Because I’m a Woman” is so good is because it has a pop-sensibility that isn’t coming from the current mainstream of the graveyard of pop synthetics, but it is coming from funk, and for all its tightness, it has grit. It also has something to say, which the mainstream never does beyond corporate-approved messages of empowerment mixed with dire moon-in-June love songs as deep as the moon’s reflection. “Because I’m a Woman” is a visceral, witty takedown, a methodical series of punches. It’s been on loop in our house.
It comes off the back of the second LP from Rogue Jones, Dos Bebés, getting right under my skin. (I gave the record a glowing review here). And then there was the new H. Hawkline album (which I missed when it came out in March), Milk and Flowers, which I rate as his best to date. It is an album full of great musical ideas, right turns and steady lines, with driving riffs enveloping that gorgeously vulnerable vocal of his. There is also a keen vibe of plastic soul going on in places, and just a healthy dash of Hunky Dory energy. He has benefitted, I think, from having his long-time collaborator Cate le Bon in the production booth, and you get a nice smattering of her trademark dirty brass and haunting treatment of fragile melodies. Le Bon, of course, is a heavyweight nowadays, with an assured international following, like Gruff Rhys, another heavy influence (although not contributor) on Milk and Flowers. It feels, perhaps, that a new roster of artists from Wales are ready to step up to that top table.
Add to this a new album from The Burning Ferns, perhaps also their best, and a statement that might, if you were looking for a tagline, establish them as Wales’ answer to Teenage Fanclub with their brand of melodic high energy guitar pop. World of the Wars is yet another cracking album. The first half of 2023 has seen them piling up. Dunkie, from Mountain Ash, have a new single out, a soaring, chasmic melodic anthem reminiscent of Spiritualised; “All the Lovers” is a tantalising taster of what is up and coming from them. And of course, we shouldn’t forget the brilliant new album from Safari Gold that came out earlier in 2023, The Years Between Dog and Wolf, a superbly confident tableaux of synth pop with some kicking singles.
It’s been an unexpected year of top albums from Wales. I feel a shift to a more ambitious and confident expression of musical ideas and with artists like those I’ve mentioned (and no doubt plenty I’ve missed out). And now, while I wait for Angharad’s album (out in October), there’s plenty to get your teeth into already out there.