Kevin McGrath : Pop Hack3 March 2020
I first came across Kevin McGrath's writing when taking tentative steps to explore Wales' contemporary music scene. Bewildered, I had suddenly found a faultless, handcrafted map. You are here, it said, try here next, and you’ll soon find your own way. And I did - always checking back to see what Kevin was writing about to make sure I stayed on track.
Pop Hack gathers together music reviews and interviews from McGrath's ever-sharp pencil, written as a staff writer for Wales Arts Review, as a contributor to PopMatters, New Sound Wales and Buzz magazine, or for his own blog, RedSoapbox.
It is a haphazard journey, but worthwhile - McGrath has an eclectic, but finely honed, taste.
To aid coherence, the book is divided into four sections: 'Unsigned and Unsung' (singer-songwriters from McGrath's South Wales home-ground), 'From Cymrucana to Indie Noir' (the same geography with an emphasis on indie), 'Beyond The Border' (mostly live sorties into Wales by musicians crossing the ancient boundary fortified by Offa, punctuated by retrospectives from The Go Betweens to Sinatra), and 'Americana'.
McGrath's exceptional strength as a writer is rooted in the love he feels for every note of the music he is moved to describe. He can readily articulate that emotional response to a reader and has an unforced yet engaging style. Many of these pieces are simply, as the Independent has it, 'lovely music writing'.
The book was first published in digital format in 2019, this new updated version is available in hard copy.
The revamp allows the reader full access to a trail of articles tracking one of McGrath's obsessions, Silent Forum, from early recordings to a triumphant debut album in 2019 on cult Welsh label, Libertino.
McGrath describes his initial contact with the band's music - a moment of near private epiphany as they delivered a "heated, hypnotic set" at Sŵn in 2016.
A following review titled 'Silent Forum: Live at Cathay's Youth and Community Centre' is remarkable both for the venue ("a cardboard box of a rehearsal room") and the clarity with which he details the compressed energy of the gig.
Later, 'In Conversation with Silent Forum (Part Two)' and a review of their momentous debut, Everything Solved at Once, demonstrate that, on the eve of the album's release, McGrath understood the band well enough to extract an interview of singular value and to write a homage that fully expressed their undoubted worth.
There are other careers threaded through the chapters (which roughly span 2010-20), notably those of Matthew Frederick / Climbing Trees (image above) and Dan Bettridge. There is a host of one off pieces too.
With each article McGrath effortlessly connects you to the music he is writing about.
Pop Hack is an essential guide to the nooks and crannies of Welsh contemporary music, and much more, written with a level of commitment and enthusiasm that should warrant a peerage in a functioning meritocracy, but that will probably only ever guarantee a nod of recognition from the stage as McGrath stands, notebook in hand, watching a gig in rapture - caught by the life, sound and energy of the performance with the delight of a small child mesmerised by magic.
Above all, Kevin McGrath is a necessary champion of Welsh music. The highest praise you can give him is that if he writes about music, it is always worth your attention, and the way he writes means you will always want to give it.