Having released two beautiful albums with minimal fanfare in recent years, Huw M - real name Huw Meredydd Roberts - has hitherto had a small but loyal following. As is so often the case in this instant gratification culture of ours, part of the problem for new artists is getting their music to the right ears. Well, consider yourself duly notified about this charming collection of stirringly affecting folk songs. Mixing traditional pieces with new material and the Welsh language with English, ‘Utica’ is not an album trying to conform.
Plucked acoustic guitar, sweeping cello and luscious harmonies are perhaps the album’s three key ingredients. It's a traditional palette which is applied with great care to a fascinating range of material. ‘Si Hwi Hwi’ is a song with plenty of heritage, its lyrics taken from a poem about slavery written in the 1850s by a Welshman who had emigrated to America and set, some hundred years later, to the tune of Welsh folk song ‘Morfa Rhuddlan’. It’s an enchanting waltz which builds to a hushed intensity that takes the breath away.
‘I Wanted You To Cry’ is musically delicate, jovially minimalist and, it initially seems, a beautiful duet built on purring harmonies. However, the lyrics affirm the misery implied in the title, as mutually assured destruction plays out through bitter accusations and weary regrets. It’s easy to be swept along by the simple grace of the vocal performances on ‘Utica’, partly as a result of the bi-lingual approach, but it’s worth pulling up a chair and taking on board the messages within.
‘Hold On’ is arguably the album’s high point, a cantering jangle with shuffling percussion and an irresistibly imploring chorus. It’s run close, however, by ‘Worried Now, Won't Be Worried Long’ which is an interpretation of one of the legendary Alan Lomax’s American field recordings dating back to 1959, and its mantra-like hymnal qualities draw the album to a close in grand fashion. Heaving cello and plangent piano contrast with an emphatic gospel-tinged backing vocal as the track swells spectacularly.
While beautifully recorded, ‘Utica’ lets the songs do the talking, without need for heavy production or any adherence to a particular sound. This is uplifting music for crisp winter mornings and dour rainy nights in equal measure. While it might initially seem a little slight and without bluster, there is real emotional heft and true heart to this collection of folk, both old and new.
Words: Gareth James