Back in 2007, I reviewed Adar Gwylltion, the third CD by Welsh band Ffynnon (pronounced “fun-on”), proclaiming that disc a somewhat strange record that took an unorthodox and challenging but ultimately satisfying approach to the presentation of the traditional music of their native Wales. Llongau (“ships”), the long-awaited follow-up, finds Ffynnon now stripped down to a basic trio lineup, where the close-knit nucleus comprises Lynne Denman (vocals) and Stacey Blythe (harp, accordion, piano and vocals), with Dylan Fowler contributing lap steel guitar and chime bars and responsible for the whole of the production aspect of the disc.
Llongau is a less idiosyncratic offering than Adar Gwylltion, delivering a more consistent (even more relaxed) sequence of music without recourse to the potential distractions of found sounds and experimental textures that at times distracted on the earlier disc. It’s also a very beautiful album, conjuring and inhabiting a seriously enchanting soundscape. Cool, quiet, accomplished, at times slightly jazzy or ambient, but more atmospheric than radical and making uniquely beguiling capital out of minimal resources to create a surprisingly rich tonal palette, a truly magical tapestry within which to cradle and clothe the ladies’ fabulous, bright and confident vocals. Lynne is blessed with a voice of real depth, power and character, capable of a variety of expressive modes, while Stacey’s supporting singing is elemental, intense and ideally closely matched to her own (and Dylan’s) vital instrumental embellishments. The gorgeously resonant textures they create embody individual, and sometimes quite unusual, sounds which are brilliantly well defined within a believable and intimate acoustic setting. Dylan’s proven production skills form a subliminal underlying texture and ambience.
The material Ffynnon choose to perform is both fascinating and intriguing, and although a majority of the disc’s 14 selections are sung in Welsh this is not as much of a barrier to the non-welsh speaker listener appreciation as it might appear, for the purely musical sensuality of the language and its carefully considered accompaniment are heard to win through every time. Although not having sufficient command of the Welsh language will inevitably get in the way of a more complete appreciation of those songs rendered in that language, help’s available on the band’s website (full texts, along with some essential, if broad notes of explanation), and even if you just don’t understand a word of the texts, you’ll doubtless still find Ffynnon’s music absolutely compelling, for it casts a spell from which there’s no escape over the disc’s glorious 54-minute span.
Five of the Welsh pieces stem from Lynne’s involvement in the Pembrokeshire Repertoire Project, which aimed to reintroduce songs originally collected in the 1960s and ’70s by Dr Roy Saer in the kitchens and fields of North Pembrokeshire; these include the disc’s lovely a cappella bookends – Dyma Flwyddyn Newydd Eto (a song for the turning of the year) and the disappointingly brief Dacw ‘nghartref Yn Y Golwg (a song of homecoming and journey’s end). There’s also Mari Mari, a charming portrait of a young girl skipping along to school (to Stacey’s lithe and playful harp accompaniment), a softly-intoned marriage proposal (Fwynlan O Serch), and the deliciously singsong Y Cadno a’r Ladi Fawr Benfelen (the tale of the foxy thief and the big blond woman) which certainly has the ring of folk familiarity!… The lilting Gelynna (Gathering Holly) was given to Lynne and Stacey by Robin Huw Bowen, and the rousing Llongau Caernarfon is from the north of Wales, and yet the tune is of Norwegian origin. The atmospheric Selkie-themed ballad Morforwyn and the episodic Merch Y Llyn (based on the exploits of the Lady of Llyn Fan Fach in the Black Mountains), both Lynne’s own compositions, display her acute flair for retelling traditional legends. Merch Y Llyn also contains sections in English and French, and Ffynnon’s known facility with the latter language informs their joyous rendition of Là-bas Dans La Prairie.
Finally, the disc contains four quite special items which are sung in English. The first is a simple and stately neo-romantic setting by Stacey of W. B. Yeats’ poem He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven (from his 1899 collection The Wind Among The Reeds) which is nothing short of sublime, with its perfectly judged piano-based backdrop. Be careful, and “tread softly because you tread on my dreams”… The remaining three, which are original songs penned by Lynne, are clear and concise expressions of often very personal thoughts, with backdrops impeccably and empathically placed by Stacey, and could be seen to share a common theme in that they all explore wholly human responses to an inhuman situation and provide some degree of reassurance. No Language was occasioned by the diagnosis of Lynne’s mother with schizophrenia, while Small Victory, a story of redemption amidst the grimness of war, was inspired by a newspaper story about the soldiers’ charity Nowzad Dogs, started when a soldier rescued a street dog from cruel treatment in Afghanistan and brought it home to the UK with him. Last but not least, there’s the sinister ticking rhythms of the enigmatic Parapet, in whose whirling mantra of shifting, changing, almost interchangeable lines are contained ominous reflections on parallel changes in the writer’s personal and political worlds.
All of which adds up to a stunning disc which, while eminently listenable and accessible, is unique enough to single-handedly and significantly raise the profile of Welsh folk music.
Review by: David Kidman
Dyma flwyddyn newydd eto
Order it via their website here: www.ffynnon.com