It may be an odd proclamation, particularly in the age of the grand and inclusive marketing gimmick, but Awards are making a comeback. Wales has never really managed to establish much in the way of accolade in the arts, at least not like other countries. The Welsh BAFTA’s, Cardiff Singer of the World, Wales Book of the Year – I’m sure there are a few others; but most awards have come and gone, the house band cutting them off mid-flow. If the arts is not taken seriously, then what place has such glitzy and serious a thing as an award ceremony? Well, Wales is at the early stages of a potential golden age of taking its art very seriously indeed. And it has good reason to. Award ceremonies – serious ones – are sprouting up to make sure this golden age does not go without the necessary flags. The Welsh Music Prize is just one. Established by DJ Huw Stephens and music promoter John Rostron in 2011, it has already garnered much respect. In this kind of business that type of respect only really comes from one thing; the quality and integrity of the acts that are nominated. Stephens and Rostron know this, undoubtedly without cynicism. They are musos, first and foremost. There was never any danger of them founding the Welsh Brit Awards. But, take note: it isn’t quite the Mercury Prize, either.
This year’s shortlist for the Welsh Music Prize is more than just a box-ticking exercise in cultural and musical diversity, as, by its very nature, it is a signpost to the strength of Welsh popular music. As it attempts to act as a beacon on the fuddled global corporate stage, the stage that churns out replicants of whoever received the earliest round of loud applause, it also, maybe prematurely, puts one finger up to the tiresomely uber-cool back-slapping of the Mercury Prize. With few exceptions the Mercury is the death knell of an act. Sometimes this is because an act had very little to shout about other than the award itself. Sometimes it is due to the suffocation from the media that comes forthwith. The young Welsh prize need not worry about those things at the moment. 6 Music mentions it in despatches, but are yet to send in the troops. When they do that will surely be the beginning of its end.
The point being, the Welsh Music Prize has genuine charm. Unlike the Mercury Prize, (or rather, like the Mercury Prize once was) the shortlist is the place to be. Gruff Rhys’ Hotel Shampoo (2011) and Future of the Left’s The Plot Against Common Sense (2012) were both worthy winners, the former a classic swinging exhibition of songwriting, the latter a genuinely exciting punch of satirical rock. But both these acts hardly need an award like this, and both accepted the accolade with good grace if underwhelmed professional enthusiasm. That acts like Islet, Kutosis, Colorama and Stagga can be in contention alongside them is what brings people to the front of the stage. Awards like this should be about presenting the best, regardless of their commercial success, and that is what Stephens and Rostron have gone for. It is, to dip into cliché for a moment, all about the music.
Unfortunately, this means that if the music on offer is not the product of a particularly strong year, then you haven’t got much to go on other than good PR and a wide smile, whilst trying to pull the tail out of the serpent’s mouth. If it’s difficult to predict a winner from this year’s shortlist, it’s because all of the albums are… well… not bad at all.
There seems to be much talk of Euros Childs’ Summer Special. The former Gorky’s frontman has produced an album that could not have been more aptly titled. It bounces around like a football on a freight train, which is the phrase I thought of that brought me to the closest point of reference for it. Summer Special, track after track, is like the album the Travelling Wilbury’s would have made next had they not realised it was largely not worth it, and just jammed hobo-style on the train home, each of them getting off at different stops until just Bob Dylan was left, slouched on a hay bale playing awful John Hiatt songs to himself. Childs’ record is charming, catchy, but so dripping in the spent creative juices of a Jeff Lynne tribute act that it actually makes you want to turn it off halfway through and listen to George Harrison’s Cloud Nine.
Likewise, I was initially won over by the gritty 90s garage sound of Fist of the First Man’s eponymous record. It is heavy on riffs and dim room jams, but ultimately is a less ambitious Tago Mago, a Hot Rats without the anarchic sonic design and Beefheart’s sand-bleached cameos. Fist of the First Man has attitude, but unfortunately it doesn’t get them anywhere; a small fish in an even smaller pond. It’s not without its smart and thoughtful moments, but you want it to break out, stop trying to write interpretive soundtracks to climaxes of Tarkovsky movies, and for them to find their own voice. It worked when Ryan Adams got his influences out of his system, aping them to the point of parody, one by one, track by track, on Gold, so maybe Fist of the First Man are on a similar journey. I’d suggest this doesn’t quite make for award-winning stuff, however.
The title of the new record from Laurence Made Me Cry (the name of Jo Whitby’s new musical project) may have hinted at just how seriously this music will take itself. But by the time of the second track of The Diary of Me, we are in spoken word territory, and all doubts are banished. Spoken lyrics such as ‘boxes of stars’ and ‘glaring Technicolor’ in Jo Whitby’s clean and detached voice suggest it didn’t take much for Laurence to elicit tears from her. She probably cries at everything, and not always sincerely. But again, there are some lovely (if non-lingering) songs on the record (‘Intelligent Mr Toad’ is a standout, Eno-flecked tune), and Whitby is well-versed in the soft-edged traverse of modern acoustic folk. And there are moments of sense of humour that feel uncomfortable, unfortunately, in the overall beanbag-bedecked landscape. Spoken word fairs much better later when the words are less earnest, such as on ‘This Evening’, but it all makes for a sadly inoffensive record.
Duo Zervas and Pepper spend much of their second album, Lifebringer, aiming straight for the bullseye of mid-level country rock, occasionally touching on modern folk. Their hearts are on the road with the Eagles – and it is sometimes exactly that tedious – but there are moments when they sound more like a dark David Gates, which is no bad thing, and times when they sound like Leanne Rimes, which is. They certainly have nothing of the grit or the angst (or the tunes) of Gene Clarke, which you imagine is what they might be aiming for. Radio Two will play songs like ‘Jerome’ and ‘One Man Show’ until the cows have come home and gone back out again humming the tunes without really being able to place them.
Another record that flirts dangerously (although not quite as sluttily) with Radio Two beige is Georgia Ruth’s rather lovely Week of Pines. The essential success of this record is that it is more in line with a musical history that is worth being in line with – from the Cecil Sharp school of folkists. Ruth is quite possibly the real deal, and as long as Radio Two doesn’t ply her with production sheen and babysham her music will continue to be something to look forward to. You can read my full review of Week of Pines for Wales Arts Review here.
It’s tempting to class Little Arrow’s Wild Wishes as one of those records mentioned earlier, a replicant of a fad-starter. It veers too close too often to Mumford crescendos to escape that accusation entirely, but there is enough in the record to make it worth listening to. There is, at its core, an impregnable English folk mentality that saves it. The ornaments – passionately thrashed uke, lead male vocal through a barely parted jawbone – could not be more tired and tested. But just as the record is in danger of passing by like an advert for an eco-friendly hatchback, a track like ‘I Man Ogre’ comes along, which is like Jaques Brel gigging in a swamp. And then ‘Red Sky’ is a sublime moment worthy of Rufus Wainwright’s Want One. Wild Wishes is an uneven record, yes – whiplash-inducing, in fact – but it has enough to add a delicate extra flavour to this shortlist.
Perhaps the greatest surprise on the shortlist was how much there was to be had from the second album from Aberystwyth band Race Horses, Furniture. It is an unashamed straight guitar pop record, and it pulls off all the slides and turns, fills the clichés with brightly coloured meat and keyboard riffs. It sits very comfortably with early Squeeze, and has flashes of some straight-talking Lloyd Cole, (although, of course, Race Horses are no Commotions, and certainly don’t have the songs of either Cole or Tilbrook and Difford). But the success of this record is in the joy with which Race Horses pull together Squeeze, Lloyd Cole, Orange Juice and a bit of more straight-forward eighties air-punch pop (‘Nobody’s Son’ is so reminiscent of Queen’s ‘Radio Ga Ga’ it almost dons a yellow tunic and strides across Wembley’s stage). But apart from ripping off Queen, a very enjoyable record indeed.
The most eclectic record on the list (and the one that sounds least like an ‘album’ in the traditional sense) is the long, bold and somewhat bloated Cackle Caviar by Metabeats. The list of collaborators is long and varied, and this perhaps makes for the unevenness of the record as a whole. When it is good, it is very good, drawing on Curtis-era Mayfield and Places and Spaces-era Donald Byrd (very strongly). When it is not so good it is soft RnB complete with samples of the sounds of beach fronts and, no doubt, glitterballs on the studio ceiling. It is unusual for a record to have such harsh corners, such as on ‘SLSBS’ and then such soft centres, such as on ‘Rush/Peace’. It can be exhausting to keep up with, and the suspicion is that the movement from pillar to post is all about smoke and mirrors. It’s difficult to take an album all that seriously that spends a whole song telling the listener to bite policeman in the crotch. This is a largely confusing record that switches between some blinding, soaring sampling and sequencing, some turgid RnB, and some very dubious rapping. One suspects there was a moment when this record was close to becoming a masterpiece, and then Metabeats just kept going and going and going.
The second album from Gruff Rhys and Brian Holton’s side project, the electro-pop band Neon Neon, moves on from the life and times of John DeLorean to another complex and little-known biography. Praxis Makes Perfect is a searing and highly welcoming concept album based on the life and experiences of millionaire and publisher of subversive literature Giangiacomo Feltrenelli. It sounds an unlikely project, but it is a fine record – Rhys is a consummate storyteller, and knows how to shape drama and exposition in the heady heat of lyricism and extremely playful and catchy tunes. It is most likely the finest record on the list. It is A-League stuff, muscular and assured. On release it formed the backbone of a recent (and very successful) National Theatre Wales production (my review of which you can read here). The production heightened the music, just as the music fed into the production. Normally this would be a runaway winner from this field, but with Hotel Shampoo winning the inaugural prize in 2011, Gruff Rhys may have to wait for his second acclamation.
There is a delightful barbed softness to Sweet Baboo’s Ships (Sweet Baboo is Stephen Black). The obvious comparison in this sense is Belle and Sebastian, who were capable off dicing you up with candy floss when they put their mind to it. Sweet Baboo has a strong and well-informed pop sensibility and at its best, Ships nods toward the magnificent Elvis Perkins and his swaggering dowdy balladeering. There are some marvellous loose NOLA brass blasts on tracks such as ‘Let’s Go Swimming Wild’, and Black’s vocal has all the open vowels and half closed eyes of a well-worn honky-tonk piano. The album hardly puts a foot wrong, even when updating ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ with ‘Twelve Carrots of Love’, or when twirling a cane and channelling Beck on ‘8 Bit Monsters’. It’s a mature and fun record by a songwriter and producer fully confident and agile.
The eponymous début album from Llandeilo’s electro-pop duo Trwbador is a pleasurable if familiar sound on the current music scene. Over the last few years, an odd flash of popularity for paper-thin popsters like Little Boots and La Roux has resulted in a genuinely interesting second wave of American and European electro pop, with acts like Policia, Melody’s Echo Chamber and College managing to find the balance between sombre serious vibes and hall-filling tunes. Trwbador return to a semi-androgynous sound, something that skips along the surface like a frequency modulator. The Welsh language tracks are often genuinely unsettling and add to fascinating avant garde feel to the record. It may not move you, but it’s unlikely to keep you utterly at arm’s length either. Tracks like ‘Sun in the Winter’ and ‘Eira’ sound like something the Incredible String Band may have come up with had they had access to today’s software; whereas ‘Safe’ and ‘Red Handkerchiefs’ are all about the big synths of those bands mentioned above (with a heavy Kate Bush influence). The disappointment is that when Trwbador go full steam ahead for the pop vote, the songs do not quite stand up, and they have more going for them when they are noodling around the folky avant garde angles.
The debut album from Cardiff band Winter Villains, February, may throw those expecting something cold, detached and harsh. What February is is a strangely warm record, harmonies and slow snares to the fore, pizzicato middle 8s and rousing tumults just off stage right. It is, dare I say it, a Christmas record, and possibly an excellent one, one with grit amidst the frost, and family arguments around every tinselled corner. There is a delightful childishness to tracks like ‘Patterns’ that are not without suppressed menace. It would be easy to think there are other albums on this list that sound a little like this one, but the truth is February is a deeply engrossing as well as unsettling album filled with songs that play with notions of hope in a landscape of bitten desolation and retracting vegetation. February is like a painting, not a wholly accomplished one, but one that makes you stare at it.
Gary Raymond’s Welsh Album of the Year (so far): Ships by Sweet Baboo