Hullabaloo is the eighth full-length solo album from Cerys Matthews, and the second to be devoted largely to traditional Welsh songs. It is in fact very much a sister album to 2010’s TIR, which was packaged similarly with sepia-colored photos from days gone by, with the songs’ lyrics lovingly laid out in Welsh and English along with notes on their background. In a certain sense Hullabaloo is a mirror-image of her first Welsh-traditional collection. While TIR included some lighter numbers it was anchored by such great, stirring ballads as “Myfanwy” and “Calon Lan;” whereas while Hullabaloo has some poignant ballads it is defined more by its uptempo and danceable tunes and arrangements. And while TIR was built upon voice and guitar, Hullabaloo flaunts a great ensemble of pipes, all manner of stringed instruments, esoteric percussion and whatever might be called for at the given moment.
Cerys Matthews excels at inspiriting and refreshing old tunes, and she also excels at finding and lifting up the common thread that runs through the really great songs from a variety of musical traditions. It’s very difficult (actually impossible) to define that thread in mere words, but one shot at it is to suggest that it is one entwined with insight into that which is fundamentally human and quite often that which is sacred; and, when it inhabits a melody and a lyric, it makes for a song that can stick around for centuries.
Hullabaloo kicks off with a bright fiddle instrumental, segueing into an insouciant tune from the 15th century called “Dadl Dau” (“Flaunting Two”), itself blending into a couple more fiddle-based melodies, finally bursting right into hoedown land, complete with bluegrass-like picking.
The gloves really come off on “Ar Ben Waun Tredegar” (“On Top Of Tredegar Moor”), lifted along by a soaring pipe horn. There’s flavors of skiffle here, and bluegrass again, and an irresistible exuberance.
In so many of these songs, of-course, Cerys is singing words that were written for a male protagonist. That kind of mixing isn’t unusual in the folk tradition, but it’s worth noting that she doesn’t sing in any kind of stiff old-folkie style, but rather with plenty of expressiveness, sensitivity and gusto as needed, such that there’s no real distance between singer and sentiment.
In terms of the links between different traditions, the tune “Y Gwcw Fach” (“The Small Cuckoo”) reminds one of nothing so much as “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof.
There are children’s songs in the mix too, like “Oes Gafr Eto?” (“Any More Goats?”) and “Bendidedig Fyddo’r Iesu” (“Jesus Is Marvelous”). It is no great stretch for Matthews to evoke that childlike perspective with her voice, and she seems to properly relish it on these sweet and bouncy numbers.
“Gyrru’r Ychen” (“Driving the Oxen”) is one of the gems of the album, a song that gives us a farmer ruminating on daily life and love and dreams while working the fields with his oxen, the refrain being his call to the animals to keep going onwards. A chanting middle-part takes this tune into an ethereal and timeless dimension.
Matthews has recorded “Y Gwahoddiad” (aka “Arglwydd Dyma Fi” or “I Hear Thy Welcome Voice”) for the second time here, the first having been ten years ago on her first solo album Cockahoop, mixed in there with her own songs, a harbinger of paths to be followed later. She has without doubt grown as a vocalist and as a singer in the Welsh tongue during the intervening years, but she sings this moving hymn the second time around with no less feeling.
And where would we be, in the final end, without a great old Welsh ballad of almost unbearable heartache? And indeed it is delivered with the final track on Hullabaloo, “Tra Bo Dau” (“Whilst There Are Two”), with a man longing for his pure love who is far overseas. With the mournful Northumbrian pipes, the gentle singing and the lovely harp, it is every bit as devastating as such a great Welsh ballad can be. If this song does not bring a worthy tear to your eye … well, there’s no need to indulge in that hypothetical, because it will bring that tear, and you will be the better for it.
As this world is also significantly better for having an album called Hullabaloo in it.