Along with Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt), this Welsh singer-songwriter's my favorite vocalist. As with Farrar, he conveys a wistful tone along with undertones of menace. Unlike Farrar's growling baritoned tension, Childs carries a sweetness in his somewhat more boyish tenor that captures innocence, as well as an unsettling insouciance that can turn charming a narrative plotting revenge against a spurning lover, sung in the first person. In fact, one of the prettiest songs of his former band, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, was titled "Murder Ballad."
Both Farrar and Childs have progressed far in fifteen or twenty years. They both were teenagers when they started with their gawky bands, and both were more anarchic, Americana-meets-punk and lysergia-meets-DIY respectively. They took traditional roots music and married it to indie rock's punkier or twangier styles. Both groups gracefully matured, with eloquent three- or four-minute songs about identity, love, and cultural flux, even if Uncle Tupelo stayed more identifiably lefty-populist than the increasingly summery, lush West Coast feel that imbued later GZM with a more accessible if to me less energizing escapist eclecticism.
Childs' first record post-GZM, "Chops," I admit I have not heard much. It's a respectable home-studio assortment of songs that a lead vocalist often makes after his bandmates have gone south. "Bore Da," all in Welsh, expresses more the national 'hiraeth' or untranslatable longing said to be within the native land and language. About half of its songs swirl and ebb into excellent pop music, experimental without losing the listener, grounded in traditional craft yet somehow refreshing what in many peers sounds like another indie rock homage to Brian Wilson.
"Miracle Inn," to me, went too far in this "Pet Sounds" direction. A song-suite reminding me of "Abbey Road" took up much of the record. Fine for fans of McCartney, and Childs holds his own with his predecessors, but the disparate nature of the record's division into small tunes vitiated some of its structure and pace. For his fourth, he went to record in Nashville with Mark Nevers, and it's no surprise to find a member of Lambchop among its session musicians. Produced quickly, many songs on the first or second take, it aspires to a less-labored level of craft.
The first four songs prove respectable, but remind me of, well, a trimmer Lambchop with a singer much easier on my ears. They follow the country lite-chamber pop approach beloved by many indie musicians integrating Nashville elements, but do not stand out. "Nineteen Fifties" reminds me of "Femme Fatale," and it moves about as sprightly.
The mood quickens, luckily, with track five and does not let up until the final track, a singalong that leaves the album's impression less powerful than it might have been, as the six songs that comprise for me the heart of "Cheer Gone" impress by their melancholy. They mix, as the best songs from later GZM and "Bore Da," folkish patterns blended with indie-pop. A familiar combination for many indie musicians who have come of age in the 80s and 90s and eased into softer, less confrontational or combative music.
So, why do these half-dozen songs stand out for me as among Childs' best ever? They take advantage of his supple delivery. They keep the emotions of wonder embedded in simpler traditional British-based folk. They add the bitterness, or the sadness, of balladry and breakup songs when necessary. They mix the optimism of youth with the knowledge of elders.
(All but the first two paragraphs posted to British & U.S. Amazon today.)