Release Date: Jul 31, 2015
Record label: Heavenly
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Electronic, Indie Pop, Neo-Psychedelia
In her previous incarnation in The Pipettes, Gwenno tasted a modicum of chart success, but the band never gained their deserved level of attention. Now with her solo album Y Dydd Olaf, she’s a totally different animal; less playful, yet certainly a force to be reckoned with, both critically and commercially. Writing a ‘political concept album’, basing it on an obscure dystopian novel where robots have taken over the world and singing it mainly in Welsh may not seem like the most commercial proposition.
This ain't your Granddaddy's dystopia. The overt dread and gloominess of the apocalypse have become all too frequent, but the hallmarks of the popular sci-fi genre are all but absent on Welsh songstress Gwenno's debut LP Y Dydd Olaf. Instead, she scores her dystopic opus with neon bright synths, highly danceable beats, and galvanizing hooks—especially on the opening tracks "Chwyldro" and "Patriarchaeth"—which, while sung in her native tongue, are nonetheless hummable for listeners of any language.
In a parallel universe, one in which the sun constantly shines and unicorns graze on the greenest of grass, The Pipettes are held up as one of our greatest pop groups. In this rather bleaker and more foreboding universe of course, the polka-dot clad trio are seen as nothing more as a footnote in pop history, who shone brightly with excellent singles like Pull Shapes and Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me, before succumbing to more line-up changes than the Sugababes and eventually embarking on that most modern of ways to call it a day, the ‘permanent hiatus’. One fortunate by-product of The Pipettes’ demise though, has been seeing what comes next.
Originally released last year on Peski, this Welsh-language album (save one track sung in Cornish), named after Owain Owain’s 1976 novel about robots who’ve taken over the world, could justifiably be called obscure. Thankfully, Heavenly picked up on that sold-out release, and Y Dydd Olaf, by ex-Pipettes singer Gwenno, now sees the light of day once more. We should all be grateful, as it’s a record so effortlessly coherent, consistent and engaging as to be almost perfect.
Gwenno Saunders used to be best known as one of the Pipettes, and if she had vanished after they broke up, she would still have something really cool on her CV. With the release of her first solo album, Y Dydd Olaf, Gwenno (as she's now known) makes a name for herself outside of the group in a big way. The record was inspired by the 1976 sci-fi novel House of the Twilight, is sung entirely in Welsh except for one song sung in Cornish, and hits a sweet spot between the exotic electronic pulse of Broadcast, the candy-sweet pop hooks of Stereolab, and the experimentalism of classic electronic pioneers like Delia Derbyshire.
Listening to Y Dydd Olaf, a description that Henry James used in The Portrait of a Lady kept coming into my mind. Ralph Touchett is a likeable, intelligent and principled man whose life has been blighted by an unspecified congenital illness, which leaves him living a kind of vicarious half-life. 'Living as he now lived', James writes 'was like reading a good book in a poor translation – a meagre entertainment for a young man who felt that he might have been an excellent linguist.' Apart from one track in Cornish, Y Dydd Olaf is written wholly in Gwenno Saunders’ native Welsh – a minority language that has long punched above its weight in the indie music stakes, from Gruff Rhys to Gorky’s.
Back in 2000, Super Furry Animals' Mwng became the first Welsh-language album to get into the UK Top 20. It's still the only one to ever dent the charts' upper reaches. There are almost a million Welsh speakers in the UK, but Welsh-language music struggles for recognition outside of Wales. At worst, it's treated as a novelty, a fate that you can only hope doesn't befall Cardiff-born Gwenno Saunders' debut solo album, reissued this week on Heavenly after its initial appearance on local label Peski last year.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. As a member of girl group throwbacks The Pipettes, Gwenno Saunders pulled shapes and made the indie boys swoon with bundles of flirty, razor-tongued sass and polka dot, '60s, pop joy. Now singing in Welsh to a lush, swirling, electro backdrop, her solo debut Y Dydd Olaf marks a radical change. There's still plenty to swoon over though.
The conventions of pop music are so well-defined that embracing them as wholeheartedly as Gwenno Saunders has done on her debut solo album would hardly seem like an act of defiance. And yet, by singing her album almost entirely in Welsh (one song is in Cornish), the former Pipettes member asserts her identity in one simple but essential gesture. Originally released on indie Peski last fall before being reissued this summer by Heavenly, Y Dydd Olaf is a dystopian feminist concept album named after an obscure Welsh sci-fi novel from 1976.