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Album review: Huw M “Utica”

November 24, 2015

On Utica, Huw M explores some of the connections between Welsh and American folk songs with the combination of soulful gospel harmonies in the context of traditional and contemporary Welsh folk music – it’s a unique sounding album, one that could make an impressive live show too.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of Utica by Huw MUtica is the third album by Welsh multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Huw M and explores some of the connections between Welsh and American folk songs and writers, particularly the 19th century poet Rowland Walters and Dr Meredydd Evans, both hailing from Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales, albeit more than a century apart. The recordings were made ‘live in the studio’ at Stiwdio Tŷ Drwg in Cardiff and it’s a technique which brings a sense of spontaneity and freshness to the collection.

The first track ‘A House by the Sea’ makes a great opener, both for its strength as a song and for its arrangement which showcases the overall sound that Huw and his collaborators have created. A lilting blend of folk and gospel, thanks in no small part to the soulful singing of The Marshall Sisters, Jacqueline and Deborah on the harmonies, with Lucy Simmonds adding some sweetly swaying cello to the bittersweet ballad; it’s definitely one of the record’s highlights.

The modulating minor/major tune of ‘Si hwi hwi’ is familiar enough, making use of the traditional Welsh air ‘Morfa Rhuddlan’ (‘The Marsh of Rhuddlan’) which was used by Meredydd Evans for his version of the lullaby on his 1954 album Welsh Folk Songs (Folkways Records). Huw retains the words from Rowland Walter’s poem but here, again, it’s the combined voices of the women singers (I’m unsure who takes the lead parts) that really steal the show.

‘I Wanted You To Cry’ is one side of the lead single which accompanies the album; the call-and-response vocals of Huw and the unidentified woman singer set up an interesting lyrical tension about love gone bad over Huw’s acoustic guitar backing with a nicely juxtaposed banjo break at the bridge.

The Americana-tinged ‘My Way Home’ is a gentle piece with some evocative percussion from Iolo Whelan, while what may be a double bass, or perhaps Lucy playing pizzicato cello (the sleeve notes don’t list a bass player) also adds a solid rhythmic underpinning. It’s followed by ‘Sŵn y galon fach yn torri’, the other side of the lead single. Derived from traditional sources, Huw’s reworking is a delicately poignant reflection on the complications of young love. Bethan Mai’s accordion and Lucy’s cello add to its unexpectedly sweet pop sensibility and, in all, it bodes well for crossover success.

Propelled by Iolo’s rattling drums, the radio-friendly ‘Hold on’ is an uptempo folk-rocker with a similar air of relaxed confidence to some of Stanley Brinks & The Wave Pictures music. Huw’s fingerstyle acoustic guitar underpins the pared-back arrangement of ‘Cydia yn fy llaw’; its clear, sweet harmony vocals give it an almost 1960s folk revival feel which sits well within the overall theme of the record. The stripped-down approach of ‘Lay down your arms’ finds Huw returning to a more electric style (guitar and keyboards) which manages to combine elements of both of the previous tunes while still retaining its own identity; once again the harmonies are a real highpoint.

‘Anial dir’ was originally performed by minimal-synth-wave trio Eirin Peryglus on their 1992 album Noeth and, while Huw dispenses with the distinctly ’80s retro sound of the original, his sparse arrangement remains true to the original melancholic feel (‘Anial dir’ translates approximately as “Wilderness”). Iolo’s drums crash like the winter waves as Lucy’s cello floats serenely above and Huw’s substitution of his and Lucy’s voices for original singer Fiona Owen works remarkably well. A bit of a slow-burner, this one, but it’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite songs on the album: the chorus melody is a definite earworm!

The penultimate ‘Gwreiddiau’ (“Roots”) has a good balance of light and shade in its arrangement with Huw’s voice balanced nicely by Lucy’s cello; credit, too, must go to producer/engineer Frank Naughton for capturing the live-in-a-room feel of the performance with some subtle but effective reverb.

Huw’s choice of ‘Worried now, won’t be worried long’ as the album’s closer adds a satisfying symmetry to its sequencing; where the album began with a tipping of the hat to traditional Welsh folk music, it ends with a nod to Alan Lomax, one of the great field collectors of American folk music. It was he who originally sourced the song from the fiddler and singer Sidney Hemphill Carter in Mississippi in 1959. Where Sidney’s version was a simple a capella, Huw adds a rhythm part on piano with some nicely understated accordion by Bethan before Iolo’s drums and Lucy’s cello join at the bridge. However, its the impassioned harmonies by (I think) the massed voices of Bethan, Lucy and the Marshall Sisters that lift the performance to a new level.

The combination of the soulful gospel harmonies in the context of traditional and contemporary Welsh folk music isn’t something I’ve come across before and it gives the collection of songs on Utica a quite unique sound which works extremely well. It’s certainly a musical avenue that I fell could be further explored and I can imagine it making for an impressive live show too. There’s a lot of promise in the material presented here and there’s no doubt that Huw M has impressive skills as a musician and an arranger; I look forward to his next album delving deeper into some of the themes he’s tackled on Utica.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (24 November 2015)

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