Rag Foundation,
(Fflach, 2003)

Rag Foundation whetted my appetite for its music with the excellent track "Mynd i Rymni" from the compilation CD Rough Guide to Wales. The song, from their 1999 album Minka, blended traditional Welsh elements with a contemporary sound in a very promising way. Indeed, a review on amazon.uk calls Minka "the saviour of folk music."

Unfortunately, Uplands, while a solid collection of pop songs with clever lyrics (provided in the liner notes), does not live up to this promise.

Instead, Rag Foundation seems to be veering so far away from their roots in Wales and into another tradition, that of British pop. Band members Neil Woollard (vocals), Kate Ronconi Woolard (fiddle, vocals), Richard Cowell (guitar), Hari Morgan (bass) and Huw Rees (percussion) are all from South Wales, but they have reverted on their website to calling themselves "British acoustic pioneers." This "British" label fits, as this new album seems to owe more to the Moody Blues and the Hollies than it does to anything Welsh that I know of. The Swansea-based quintet -- who still records with Ceredigion's excellent label, Fflach -- runs the risk with this recording of being labeled just another pop band from Britain. Indeed, they refrain here from recording even one song in Welsh, straying from their bilingual past. Since Welsh is a far more poetic and musical language than English, this is an odd artistic decision.

Unfortunately, the lyrics of this band are often so opaque as to be almost meaningless. There is a fair amount of unfocused, trendy angst in their songs, even anger in "Thank you" -- "Thank you and all you stand for/ you don't give a damn/... you could do anything, anything that you wanted to/... but you're a lying cheating whore" -- and in the song "Heart of a Radical Mind." But who is this anger directed against? We are never sure.

I'm all for ambiguity in lyrics and poetry. In such tracks as "Spend It in the Summertime," the band balances between a spiffy pop song and social commentary. The trick may work for some. In "She Sells Apologies" they move effortlessly from bland to almost shocking, but they cover ground John Lennon and others have trod extensively. These are catchy, but forgettable, pop tunes.

Why? Their use of stripped down terms like "a man," "you" and "she" (rather than say, Sioned from Llanelli) is disconcerting and betrays a hollow, even rootless approach to storytelling. The folk tradition of using concrete language and proper names is completely abandoned here. If this criticism seems a quibble, here's an experiment: take your favorite music, take all the proper nouns out of it, and see how it reads. If you don't notice the difference, then buy this album.

The songs on Uplands have little to do with either the traditional life, or the current situation, in Wales. Dal dy dir! All good music is about someone from somewhere. I can't think of an artist I care about that does not wear his or her music's place of origin like a flag. Rag Foundation, though hailing from South Wales, leaves little trace of this on Uplands. They do mention the "road to Rymni" again in one of their best songs, "Blackbird," where they also sing, revealingly "If you give me your soul/I will get you through."

Uplands is a very smooth, well-crafted album, but one which I would have no reason to actually spend money on. It may be acoustic -- on "Nothing is Revealed," the 12th track, they actually show signs of being a roots band in the introductory instrumental -- but there isn't much here to indicate what the roots of this band might be. A pretty pop band they are; saviours of folk they are not.

Unless they go back to staking out their own turf in Welsh folk-based acoustic music, their careers could be very short. Should they choose to build on the substantial promise of "Mynd I Rymni," however, I'm all ears.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 3 April 2004

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