Fel cellwair, gwisgi t hyd yn oed angen chyfieithwr!
Get ready for the ultimate head-trip. Trippier than The Great Yokai War. Trippier than Hendrix. Even trippier than Bob Dylan. That’s right: it’s the greatest Welsh folk-rock album you’ve ever heard in your life.
Meic Stevens is often referred to as “the Welsh Bob Dylan,” and though it’s an apt comparison, it’s not necessarily a good one. Oh sure, he was recording folk-styled rock numbers right in the middle of Dylan’s critical heyday (see: 1967-1971), and some of his songs were protest numbers (like “Nid I Fi Mistar MP [Not For Me, Mr. MP]”), but Stevens had more of a psychedelic edge to his music: mildly experimental but never straying from his excellent pop sensibilities. If anything, he was the Welsh Donovan, and that’s nothing to shy away from. Though—as Stevens describes it—he could’ve released an album of nothing but dog barks and still would’ve gotten away with it:
“At that time there was a great demand for new music. BBC Wales were very interested in almost anything they could get their hands on, so whatever I wrote and recorded would get plenty of airplay and the royalties rolled in. A lot of songs and music were written for TV shows, and not just music ones—chat shows, kids’ programmes, documentaries, even comedy. It was all grist to the mill—most of it was never recorded again, never released commercially and vanished overnight.”
—Meic Stevens (Cardiff, April 2007)
Stevens had released dozens upon dozens of EPs in the late ‘60s, allowing him lots of creative freedom but little musical longevity. Sunbeam Records, however, thought differently. Last year, they released a U.S.-only CD compilation of Stevens’ early EPs, and it sold surprisingly well (all the more amazing is how the only other stateside release prior to this was a 1000-copy limited run of Stevens’ 1970 full-length, Outlander). Less than a year later, Sunbeam happily released a second compilation, this time covering Stevens’ output from 1969 to 1971. In this set, we see a more focused set of songs that shows an artist stuck halfway between full-on acoustic traditionalism and psych-rock experimentation.
Oh, and it’s all sung in Welsh.
If the average American citizen were to listen to this, they would not understand a single word. Not one. Certainly, the Super Furry Animals have gone to great lengths to bring Welsh music to American ears (even going as far as to release their first Welsh-only albums in expanded double-disc format), but they only made a breakthrough once they sang entirely in English. So, for the casual listener, Stevens’ Sackcloth & Ashes: The EPs, Volume 2 will sound like a Nuggets compilation beamed in from another planet. After all, Stevens’ few English-language tracks were already used up on Volume 1. Yet, it’s at this point where we disengage and realize that good music is good music, no matter where it comes from.
The set opens with “Y Brawd Houdini [The Brother Houdini]”, itself an astonishingly catchy piece of pop that’s stuck halfway between Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” and the Mumbler’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”. Riding a “la la” chorus that could make a whole stadium sing in unison, it’s a full-band number that’s goofy, fun, and totally irreverent (so catchy, in fact, that the Super Furry Animals themselves have been caught covering it in concert more than a few times). The aforementioned “Nid I Fi Mistar MP [Not For Me, Mr. MP]” is total Freewheelin’-era Dylan: just a man and his guitar. Even though we can’t decipher what he’s saying (unless there’s any fluent U.K. relatives you know), we’re completely sold by the passion in Stevens’ gritty-but-pleasant voice. He’s a smoker but not a wheezer, and that in itself is a welcome blessing in the realm of folk-rock nostalgia. Yet his voice gets put to the test on the intense “Rhyddid Ffug [False Freedom]”, a powerful, visceral, epic folk song that commands the attention of all. Stevens is a fantastic guitar player, a fact that Sackcloth & Ashes readily documents but rarely makes a big point about (not even when he’s wildly soloing on the jam-session rock fest that is “Jam Poeth [Hot Jam]”). Talent knows no geography.
Yet, as acclaimed as he may be, Stevens never completely defined a style for himself. In many ways, his work serves as an erratic “best of” the ‘60s rock movement. “Byw Yn Y Wlad [Living in the Country]” has the laid-back vibe of McCartney’s first solo excursions, and “Y Misoedd [The Months]”—though beautiful—is really just a pretty redux of another great Stevens (in this case: Cat). Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with being compared to the greats, but it’s just unfortunate that Stevens often followed the trails instead of blazing them (plus, the collection ends on a particularly weak note with the largely forgettable “Santiana”).
Still, Sackcloth & Ashes is a remarkable document, showcasing an artist whose body of work is just as stunning and beautiful as any of his American folk-rock counterparts. It’s hard to think of Cat Stevens ever indulging in the surf-rock piano of “Dwyn y Lein [Stealing the Line]” or Donovan ever laying himself so musically bare as Stevens does on “Roedd Gennyf I Gariad [I Had a Love]”. Some great artists dwindle in obscurity for decades without ever getting their just due. Here, we can commemorate the work of a true musical genius: one who’s both trippy and astounding at the same time. ‘N dal argymelledig.
- Multiple songs Streaming