There is plague, said Tom Twp. ApLlewelyn in the organ loft reached for the bass stops. The white plague drifted through the church to the music of the savage voluntary. Parson and sinner stood beneath the reflections of the Holy Family, marking in each ginger halo the hair of blood. There was to one the voice of an arming God in the echo of each chord, and, to the other, the horse’s ha.
— “The Horse’s Ha” by Dylan Thomas
Things do seem to take place on this record in dark or darkening places, but that’s where all the interesting stuff happens, right?
— Janet Bean of the band The Horse’s Ha
While I was working on the review of Of The Cathmawr Yards— the debut album by The Horse’s Ha— I took the opportunity to read the namesake short story “The Horse’s Ha” by the Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. “The Horse’s Ha” was included in the posthumous 1955 collection of short stories titled Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories. Most of the reporting about the albums release earlier in the year pointed out the Dylan Thomas short story about the fictional Cathmawr Yards cemetery where zombies lived.
The white horse in the story and its associated “raw-headed” rider represents a plague that spreads through the small Welsh village of Cathmawr Yards. The plague seemingly is causing the zombification of the residents. To be “Of The Cathmawr Yards” implies that one is undead.
What does all of this have to do with the album? At first listen, it isn’t really clear. The obscurity of the band’s name and the title of the album is matched to the obscure dark lyrics penned mostly by James Elkington whose other gig is with The Zincs and one song by Janet Bean of Freakwater and Eleventh Dream Day. The CD and white vinyl LP of Of The Cathmawr Yards provide the lyrics to the album, which, when taken out of the context of the music, are impressively poetic. It would take a lot of literary chutzpah to name your band and album after a Dylan Thomas work.
Dead wrong, dressed right
for waltzes in starlight, the
house is dry, the flowers
grieve in their vase.
There’s a whirring to a dwindling word,
that fades in waves once it’s heard.
Once it’s gone and you return to numb
You’ll never retrieve, however you plumb.
Prior to reading the short story, the repeated listens of the album presented a common thread to me. I reached out to Janet to verify that this was the case, and she said that the album has definite patterns of certain words used.
The quote from Janet about “dark and darkening places” at the beginning of this article does a good job of summing the album up for me. Taken in whole, the album is a series of vignettes taking place on a dimly-lit stage. These stories of conflict and the human condition are presented without context leaving the interpretation up to the listener. In the dramatic structure, these songs are entirely exposition and mood, but the payoff is in the presentation.
Of The Cathmawr Yards is a jazz and folk amalgam that borders on a pop sound that draws quick and pleasing comparisons to The Smiths and later Talk Talk. The instrumentation is a constant acoustic sound implementing smartly-brushed percussion as well as double bass and other strings to carry the Johnny Marr-ish clean electric guitar and the well-matched harmonies of Bean’s pretty soprano and Elkington’s soft baritone voices. This mixture reminds me also of the duet work of Richard and Linda Thompson on albums like their 1982 final work together Shoot Out The Lights. In fact, that could be considered a logical forebear of this album.
Unlike the rocky inter-personal relationship on record and off of Richard and Linda, James and Janet serve only as narrators of these songs, and it’s this almost-dreamy detachedness that provides a reserved tone to the album. A reserve that might not appeal to everyone or every situation. The album is best consumed in whole to appreciate the complete work. To my ears, this is flawless presentation with singular vision and purpose– a collection of verse set to polished music.
In the Dylan Thomas story “The Horse’s Ha,” Mr. Montgomery is presented with the irony of being the undertaker of the Cathmawr Yards, where his clientèle are undead. “Shall I measure the undead?” he asks aloud incredulously from within his own coffin– his boarded up home. It’s the feeling of being trapped in a particular situation and desire for change that is the unifying theme throughout both the short story and Of The Cathmawr Yards.
Click Here to download “The Piss Choir” from Of The Cathmawr Yards.
Here is “Map of Stars” from Of The Cathmawr Yards performed live: