Depending on where you stand, lyrics are either mere words to carry a tune or a key element – a story or sentiment necessary to make a listener connect with a song. I’ve known passionate music fans as well as many a musician adamant that the words matter not a jot, but have myself pretty much always come down on the other side of the argument. Give me a Dylan-esque storyteller, a sharp social commentator whether in the Neil Young mould or the rather different approach of Jarvis Cocker, or a Springsteen-style street poet over someone who scribbled it all down the night before recording any day (ignoring, for a moment, Cocker’s claims that he used to do that all the time).
I’ll make exceptions for instrumental albums, of course, but otherwise I’ve always insisted on the words adding an extra dimension. So what happens when a band like Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog come along, singing every word in Welsh – a language I can never hope to get my head around?
Like those before it, their third album Draw Dros y Mynydd contains not a word of English. It takes some getting used to, assuming a) you don’t speak Welsh and b) you don’t spend a lot of time listening to any other foreign-language records.
The band’s name translates as the Rhos Botwnnog Cowboys (Rhos Botwnnog being their home village in north Wales) and aside from the strong Welsh language traditions of their home region they clearly draw most of their influences from across the Atlantic, blending country, surf and folk. And they do it very well. They could be singing poetry worthy of Keats or Whitman, or they could be singing their shopping lists, but it doesn’t really matter.
Because what will translate most clearly is the subtlety of the Cowbois’ artistry, whether on the sweeping opener ‘Glaw’, with its languid guitars and searing steel pedal, the earnest ‘Mastiau Hen Longau’ or ‘Yno Fydda i’ which clearly draws on Harvest-era Neil Young. They can mix up their styles too, as they do on the rocking ‘Llanw Ucha’ Erioed’ or the smoother ‘Ceffylau ar D’rannau’ which hints at some more MOR influences. The highlight though, comes when Branwen ‘Sbrings’ Williams takes over the vocals to devastating affect on ‘Deio Bach’ – beautiful in any language.