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POP MUSIC | Pop Eye

Blimey, the British Scene Has a Heavy Welsh Accent

Groups with a chance at U.S. impact include Manic Street Preachers.

January 03, 1999|DAVE JENNINGS | Dave Jennings is an occasional contributor to Calendar

LONDON — After a year of semi-hibernation for the Oasis-led Brit-pop cadre in 1998, Radiohead, the Verve, Blur, Elastica and possibly Oasis are expected to return to action in 1999.

But in the meantime, those groups' absence left the way open for the emergence of a few surprises on the British charts, with a particular wealth of Welsh acts, several of which are poised for a launch across the Atlantic in this new year.

Here's a look at a few who have made their names in Britain and stand real shots at breaking through in the U.S.:

B*Witched: At one point in late '98, all of the Top 5 U.K. singles were from women. Among them was this quartet of young Irishwomen and their cheery sing-alongs spiked with folksy fiddles--sort of a junior version of the adult-pop family the Corrs. B*Witched topped the U.K. charts twice, first with the breathlessly breezy rope-skipping shimmer of "C'Est La Vie" and then with "To You I Belong," a dirge of doe-eyed devotion. The group is about to get a big push in the U.S., with the first single having now been released by Epic Records, which will put out the album in February. And the foursome is already on American soil, serving as the opening act of 'N Sync's current tour, which includes dates tonight at Cox Arena in San Diego and Tuesday and Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre.

Billie: Britain's other major kindergarten contender was 16-year-old Billie Piper, whose petulant squeak frayed the nerves of just about all her elders for weeks when the contrived brat anthem "Because We Want To" made it big in the summer.

Manic Street Preachers: Leading the Welsh contingent, this group has actually had a high profile in Britain for much of the '90s and got a couple of legitimate shots at U.S. notice, but any transatlantic move was cut short first by tragedy and later by poor timing.

In any case, what in 1991 was a neo-punk group looking and sounding much like the Clash had transformed by 1998 into part of the rock establishment, topping the charts with the Spanish Civil War-themed "If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next." The song's curious combination of anti-fascist polemic and album-oriented rock was further explored in the subsequent "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" album, which capped the band's rise in the British ranks.

The Manics have never disguised an unabashed desire to make it in America, and they toured there in the early '90s. But on the eve of what looked like a possible breakthrough U.S. trek in early 1995, rhythm guitarist and lyricist Richie Edwards disappeared and has not been seen since, presumed dead after extensive searches have failed to find him. After a break, the remaining three members continued on and in the fall of 1996 had been booked as the opening act on Oasis' high-profile U.S. tour--only to have that trek abandoned due to tantrums from the headliners' Gallagher brothers.

Now, though, the band is getting another shot, having moved from Epic Records in the U.S. to a new deal with Virgin, which will release the "This Is My Truth" set in March, with hopes of repeating the success it had in the States with the Verve's last album.

Catatonia: Another Welsh entry, Catatonia had a dramatic rise to prominence in 1998, but, thankfully, on a much less troubled path than Manic Street Preachers'. Witty songwriting and the considerable charisma of eloquent, engaging singer Cerys Matthews lifted the group above its guitar-pop rivals as the album "International Velvet," released last February, reached No. 1 in May after producing two Top 10 singles. By year's end it had sold more than 600,000 copies in Britain--double platinum by U.K. standards.

Further exposure came via Matthews' guest duet on Liverpool band Space's hilarious hit "The Ballad of Tom Jones." Jones (also from Wales, of course) was apparently flattered and invited her to sing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" on his prime-time New Year's Eve TV special.

In the U.S., Catatonia caught the attention of Neil Young, whose Vapor Records released the album in association with Warner Bros. Records--though it didn't catch many other ears. But there are high hopes for a new album, due in May.

Stereophonics: The third major Welsh-rock success story of 1998, this trio from the tiny town of Cmwaman had looked like a winner since becoming the first signing to Virgin founder Richard Branson's new V2 Records in 1996. The title of a 1997 debut album, "Word Gets Around," proved accurate in the past year as it rose into the Top 10 and won lavish critical praise for its skillful blending of Brit-pop melodic guitar buzz and '90s dance music technology.

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