Gwenno – Rialto Theatre – 16th March 2018

Photo by Peter WilliamsOnce upon a time in Brighton there was a make believe band called The Pipettes. There were three of them, and they all wore polka dots, did some pleasing choreographed dance routines, and attempted to recreate a 60s girl group aesthetic but with a modern twist. To some extent it was an experiment in manufactured pop (masterminded by one Monster Bobby), that resulted in a couple of albums and even a hit, in the form of ‘Pull Shapes’. They were much fun to watch, and their songs were strong on classic pop melodicism and structure.

Welsh singer Gwenno Saunders fronted that band for much of their short but sweet existence. However, they dissolved in 2010, and Saunders eventually headed back to her homeland to figure out what to do next. She then released a Welsh-language EP in 2012, followed by her debut album Y Dydd Olaf, again in Welsh, bar one track which she sang in Cornish.

Yes, Saunders, the daughter of Cornish speaking poet Tim Saunders, can speak both fluent Welsh and Cornish, as well as English. It’s an extraordinarily rare combination, that she has utilised to the full on both her pre-Pipettes and post-Pipettes musical escapades.

Touring on the back of her new, this time exclusively Cornish sung, album, Le Kov, Saunders found her way back to Brighton, no doubt with a few curious Brighton friends and Pipettes fans on the scene, for this sold out gig.

Despite the obvious differences in language, musically The Pipettes and Gwenno Saunders aren’t a million miles apart. For sure, the semi-saccharine, three-minute pop charm of The Pipettes is largely gone. Yet her strong affinity with 60s pop and psychedelia lives on in Le Kov, a kind of imagined utopia that Saunders tells us exists somewhere beyond St. Michael’s Mount, “Where people can be whoever they want to be, and where there’s a living wage for everyone”, she tells us in that engagingly Welsh accent of hers. This is no hippie nirvana she’s dreaming of though; there’s humour-a-plenty too within the same chat, “The weather is awful”, she say about standing on the beach looking out to sea. “It’s ruining my hair, like it does in Brighton”.

Le Kov is a curious mix of the playful and serious. It’s about (Cornish) identity and reclamation. While it’s also about computer love (‘Jynn Amontya’), and cheese. Indeed, Saunders sends us into the night with ‘Eus Keus?’ a song about her love of fromage, and which she demands audience participation. It’s all filtered, as is much of the short set (just 40 minutes), through a dense soundscape of dual synths and keys, enveloping chiming guitar, and a rock-steady rhythm section of bass and drums. It’s where mind-warping psych melds with uber-psychedelic imagery on the large backdrop (courtesy of Innerstrings). There’s also some Neu!-type grooves, for instance on ‘Chwyldro’ (a track off Y Dydd Olaf), all topped off by Saunders’ falsetto, dreamy tones.

Whilst the intricate nuances of the record are lost somewhat on the live stage, it’s still a mesmerising, enveloping sound that showcases Gwenno to be a thoughtful artist, another in a long line of experimental psychedelic-pop musicians that Wales seems to produce in abundance. Her work is, in many ways, radically different from her polka-dot days of three-minute pop, but the same underlying irreverence and playfulness permeates throughout, even if the subject this time is ultimately about embracing regional identities and cultures.

Jeff Hemmings