Album: Cerys Matthews *****

Cockahoop, Blanco y Negro
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The Independent Culture

When Catatonia's career collapsed a couple of years ago, with a tired and over-emotional Cerys Matthews in rehab, and the band's final album, Paper Scissors Stone, disappearing without trace, it was the most ignominious downfall suffered by any of the first-rank Britpop outfits. The reversals suffered by Pulp, Suede and, to an extent, Oasis were more protracted affairs, each band coasting gradually to a standstill; but Catatonia, it seemed, had just driven at full tilt into a brick wall and shattered on impact.

Few, at the time, held out much hope for the various Catatonics' plans, and Matthews' subsequent departure for America merited barely a mention in the gossip columns she had once dominated like some bohemian queen. Certainly, no one would have predicted a solo comeback as assured and distinctive as Cockahoop, an album that recasts Cerys as a folksy warbler in the vein of Victoria Williams. The shock will be all the more pronounced for those who, like myself, had never previously been able to abide her vocals. After years of having to shriek to make herself heard above her old band's indie-pop clangour, it's an unexpected delight to hear her actually singing, navigating these mostly acoustic arrangements in a relaxed, subtle manner. Gone is the boozy, ladette caterwauling, replaced here by a voice that copes effortlessly with sentiments both sweet and sour. It's as if Catatonia were merely Cerys's chrysalis phase, a shell from which she's just emerged to spread her wings with Cockahoop.

Her original intention had been to record an album of traditional song sat the rural studio of Dylan's former pedal-steel guitarist, Bucky Baxter. With her muse refreshed, however, Cockahoop wound up as a blend of new original material, old folk numbers and well- chosen covers. There's even a Welsh hymn,"Arglwydd Dyma Fi", set to yearning pedal steel and warm cello. Drawing on the talents of the Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, Emmylou'sguitarist Richard Bennett, and multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke, Baxter has surrounded Matthews' voice with the organic, "woody" tones of mandolin, dulcimer, banjo and fiddle, bringing a grainy immediacy and downhome patina to songs such as "All My Trials" and the Cajun ditty "La Bague". Augmented with woodwind and strings, there's a chamber-folk Americana feel to "Caught in the Middle", and the wistful drinking song, "Chardonnay".

The mood varies sharply throughout, shifting from buoyant to spooky in the space of a track, but there's no grinding of gears between moods, and indeed, barely a misjudged note on the whole album. An amazing, unexpected success.