Gai Toms : The Wild, the Tame and the Feral2015 : Sbensh
If the debut CD of Gai Tom's other concurrent project, Brython Shag, metaphorically gets hold of your lapels and shouts 'Well, what do you think?' with the minimum of implied patience, this one just sits politely composed, occasionally raising a subtle quizzical eyebrow to enquire if you have the time to listen yet.
Well, now I have.
Gai Toms has had a successful and productive career both solo and in bands, including Anweledig. This is his first complete set of songs in English. One thing is evident from the off, Toms is definitely an accomplished songwriter and lyricist. If you trawl his website you can collect an explicit set of influences: "..Woody Guthrie, Meic Stevens, John Prine, Nick Cave, Gruff Rhys / SFA, PJ Harvey, Johnny Cash, Conor Oberst, Ty Segall, Tom Waits, Bjork, Tom Morello and more" - but the comparison that keeps nagging is to TV Smith - ex. of the Adverts - who has carved a long solo career based on his deceptively simple but piercing lyrics and the sheer amount of honest character in his songs.
Whatever the influences Toms' distinctive North Walian accent, and the songs' sense of where they come from, is never lost.
What also strikes you is the sheer range of styles he is comfortable with here, which means his new role playing a monstering rock guitar with Brython Shag should come as no real surprise. This collection won't rip your ears off, and it is a grower - there's affability, subtlety and humour, rather than the maximum immediate impact and a sense of suppressed but growling tension found in the power of Brython Shag.
It's a great set of songs - opening with a vivid and nostalgic paean to the freedom of the outdoors as a child, Free, the first peak is the rolling Sea and Mountain, describing the fundamental turbulence in a relationship with a rich set of metaphors. Career Suicide has jaunt and humour in its rockabilly swagger and bar room piano, The Music is acidic in its descriptive lyric spun from a sense of desperation at the edge of pub life and Stardust Ball is a gentle philosophical, affirming song, the harmony of the night sky and life being what it will be. Die Serpula Die is an angry rant against dry rot, not a theme overdone in the contemporary pop cannon. For me that's the best tracks sorted, but they are all good.
It's a remarkably authentic, intelligent and warm humoured assortment from an adroit singer songwriter, backed by an equally masterly band that includes Euros Jones on guitar.
For those willing to delve (and you just should) into the background further the following interview (by Bleddyn Williams, lifted wholesale from Brythonica - with permission and much thanks) spells out the thinking behind the suit on the cover, releasing an English language album and the inspiration behind some of the songs:
Where did you get the suit?
I got the suit for my sisters wedding in the late 90's. I was a student in Aberystwyth at the time and the only way I could afford the suit was to sign up for a Burtons credit card. The suit got me into debt and gave me a bad credit record, debt collectors and all.
You've always written in Welsh, why have you chosen English now?
Everybody asks that! I wrote my very first song in English, 'Angel' with Jo Buck (Anweledig) for a school competition. It wasn't a 'choice' really, I've always dabbled with English words but haven't felt comfortable with them, until now. Some people think I write in English now because of the PRS bollocks (PRS/BBC/EOS debate about Welsh royalties, 2009 - 2012) and that I'm looking for more royalties. They're missing the point, I just want the music out there - airplay or not! To answer the question (in order) 1. The music exists, I want it out there. 2. There's only so much you can achieve singing in Welsh only, this album is just a door in the corridor. 3. Is there still stigma about Welsh speakers singing in English?!
Does writing in English come easy?
As I said, I've dabbled with it for years, I think I've got the hang of it now. Late learner! In comparison to Welsh, It's a totally different craft / framework of thinking, sometimes they bounce off each other e.g. the song 'Sea & Mountain' in Welsh it's a saying - 'môr a mynydd', which is the equivalent of the saying 'making a mountain out of a mole hill', so the literal Welsh meaning has somehow affected the song style. To begin with it was a song about Meirionethshire and it's landscape, then, due to the Welsh meaning it's turned into a song about a turbulent relationship. Processes like this help give my songs a Welsh identity - as well as being an interesting process.
There are many nature references in your songs, as well as your previous music, do you do this on purpose? Is there a theme?
Of course, we can't escape nature, we're part of it - we're made of stardust. But, for an answer closer to home? I'm always affected by the environment, be it country side or an urban setting. I hope people will have a Gwynedd (North West Wales) experience when listening to this - not literally, but abstractly and from a landscape perspective without being too 'folky' and stereotype.
There's an Elvis Costello vibe on some tracks. Do you listen to him?
Now you've said that, I'll have to listen some more! Elvis and I must share the same musical intentions, like some kind of spiritual / music brothers. Who knows?! I know he plays many music styles, he's also very lyrical, I'm similar. But this album has a consistency compared to my previous album 'Bethel', that album was totally multi genre.
I like 'Career Suicide', does it worry you that singing in English might be 'career suicide' in some narrow minded Welsh language music circles?
Thanks! 'Career Suicide' is a tongue in cheek jibe at people going on TV programmes like Can i Gymru (Song for Wales, S4C) and X Factor etc, I'm one, therefore I've already committed the career suicide, ha!! (GT competed in Can i Gymru 3 times, won in 2012). It was desperation. I don't write catchy Welsh tunes much these days either, you could argue that as career suicide too. The thing with the Welsh language scene is, no one scratches the surface - talks, reviews and interviews are so vague and boring, it's impossible to measure success, or failure. Maybe I'm looking for better feedback through English. I just hope people will accept and perceive the album for it's content, not for the language it's in.
A lot of artists put on an English / American accent when they sing in English, you obviously haven't. Was that a decision, or is that the only way you can sing in your second language?
I soften the 'R's in some instances but not throughout, I sounded like a knob doing that! I played the album to Mam, the first thing she said was, "why don't you sing with an American accent, sound better like that you know!" (in Welsh). I can imagine some Anglo ears having difficulty with the accent, but the Gwynedd English accent (along side the Welsh language itself) is part of our sonic landscape, therefore part of the British sonic landscape, the world's sonic landscape! If 'Culture Nazi's' want a typical Anglo-American accent, this album is not for them unfortunately.
Who's the Tai Chi Woman? Do you have much experience with oriental women?
I once got a Chinese take away in the 'Taste Garden' in Blaenau, I left my name for the order, "my name is Gai", the girl behind the counter started pissing herself laughing! 'Gai' in Cantonese is chicken! I found out later that Toms in Cantonese is soup. I have thought of naming the band 'The Croutons', Gai Toms & The Croutons! If I sang comedy songs I'd go for it, but it doesn't quite suit the music. So, yes - that's my experience of oriental women so far. Back to the song, I was walking Django the dog on the beach and saw a woman doing Tai Chi in her beach house garden, all calm and peaceful. At the same time, there were people on the beach quarrelling about the sand getting into their picnic, the contradiction was beautiful. Hey presto, a song! The album is full of contradictions, I like that in songs.
Dai Serpula, strange Welsh surname, where's he from?
Boom! Bledd, you're hilarious! It's 'Die' you plonk! Serpula Lycramans is the latin name for 'dry rot', I had a case of it in the studio (old chapel), what a nightmare! The song is from the wood's perspective, the American pitch pine that were used in our chapels during the Methodist revival. Adam Quaeck (aka Titus Monk) gives a haunting special appearance, like a shaman exorcizing the 'demon' from the chapel, like a native American spirit calling the pitch pine back to where it belongs.
After Brython Shag (Gai's other band) why have you chosen to go back to writing solo? Had enough of Ceri C (Brython Shag / Anweledig singer)?!
Ha!! I know Ceri C since 1976 - we're like that couple on Father Ted, friends one minute, arguing the other minute. What get's me is people coming up to me complaining about the thing he says/does on nights out - as if I had some kind of authority over him. But, one thing I do know, he's got a heart of gold and I love him, he just needs more discipline in front of other frontmen (I've stared another argument now! Ha!).
Back to the writing, I started this album before Brython Shag formed, but anyway, I'm going to write and compose until I'm able to solo, band, theatre, film, tv, jingles, anything! Times come and go, the songwriter stays.
So there you are - I do not think if you bought this album and gave it a few honest listens you'd be able to find any regret in your heart, other than that which was there before - and the warmth in these songs will have chiselled away even at some of that.