Bluefat Archive November 2005

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Love Sculptures

Super Furry Animals!

To describe Super Furry Animals as a mere psychedelic band is shaky shorthand and even misleading. On the other hand, the veteran Welsh group has, on its certifiably sumptuous Love Kraft album, created very fine music for lying in the grass watching the clouds drift by. I said lying, not smoking, but you could call this stuff post-psychedelic, I guess. You could call your mom.

As Welsh people are known to do, these guys go by interesting names: There's lead singer Gruff Rhys, who'll discuss the band's oeuvre just below; then there are Gruff's pals Cian Ciarn on keyboards, Dafydd "Daf" Ieuan playing the drums, one Guto Pryce on bass, and the only Huw "Bunf" Bunford that matters on guitar. All are capable of switching instruments around to a certain extent, and in a recent and fruitful development, several of the band members contributed songs and lead vocals.

Love Kraft, mixed by Mario Caldato, who did SFA's previous album, Phantom Power 行 he's the guy you know from his work with Beck and the Beastie Boys 行 is a lovely, large thing of Floydian languidity and burnished analog drum thump circa your favorite Kodak moments from '70s L.A. sessions. On this disc, the hazy effect is enhanced with string sections that swoon and swoop in ecstatic unison (several of them arranged by the band's unofficial sixth member, the redoubtable Sean O'Hagan of High Llamas). Schoolboy choirs dart in and out of the fray, as do vibraphones, dusty analog synths, several varieties of '68 fuzztone guitar, acoustic pianos, huffing brass and winds, insects, mopeds, atmospheric conditions and the merest wisps of 2 a.m. talk 'round the bar, all captured in Catalonia and Rio de Janeiro studios.

Basically, Super Furry Animals do here what they've been doing for six or so albums now, and possibly in the most effective way they'll ever do it: extremely listenable pop songs that boil down the essence of a thousand fascinating sources, with an ear toward tweaking things out of the norm, whether that comes in the form of an unusual chord progression, an atypical juxtaposition of instruments, melodic lines veering into jaw-dropping left-field bridges or subtly stunning dub effects. In most cases, the band's lyrics (mostly Gruff's) arcanely address who knows what about love and life, the planets and our Earth, though they will let a political blatancy poke its angry head out from time to time, 'cause why not?

The difference here is a generally more uncomplicated approach to recording and mixing, which was both by design and happenstance. "It's a very relaxed album," says Gruff. "We don't feel any pressure to make energetic music. We just wanted to make another record." Love Kraft is also a very different SFA outing for its deeper introspection and relatively uncrowded sound field; this most likely has to do with the band having shared composing and singing duties; unlike Gruff's usual head-scratchingly oblique lyrical approach, the others' tended to be a bit more personal.

'Round about the time of the recording of SFA's last album, engineer Caldato noticed the band's sickly pallor in the gray Londonderry air. He thought that he'd like to see how a spot of sunshine would affect the group and their music, so when it came time to lay down tracks for the new one, the band packed their gear and rolled off to Catalonia."I think the heat slowed us down," says Gruff. Which might've affected the cares and concerns addressed in the lyrics as much as it colored the music. The Brazilian-string-laden "Walk You Home," for example, is one of the most straightforward songs the band has ever done. I kept looking for a trace of irony in it, but couldn't find one 行 ? No, the guy's smitten, and he really wants to walk her home, is all.

"Yeah, there's no irony there," Gruff says. "There's very little engagement with contemporary culture on the record, or contemporary music, for that matter. Our last two albums engaged to a certain extent with what was happening in the world at the time 行 you know, you work late into the night at the studio, come home and switch on the TV after that, and you can only get the news. But on this record, the Spanish and Brazilian media we were exposed to were completely different. We were completely shielded from the latest news or any horrific event, and there was a language barrier that made us feel very innocent."

The clear, sweet melodic turns of "Atomik Lust" were no doubt a byproduct of this return to simpler pleasures, and it's swathed in barrelhouse piano, rinky-dink Dr. Who synth swirl and rudimentary choral harmonies 行 graceful and elegant in effect, not fussy or pretentious, which sums up the smart, easygoing psychedelia of this album, as does this pleasing new take on how one might lyrically express affection: "I'd love to see the ending someday of Citizen Kane."

In Rio, Caldato located a vintage analog mixing console that had been used on numerous bossa nova and orchestral classics of the '60s and '70s, which flattened the sound and contributed to the album's glowing oranges and yellows and golden browns. Love Kraft does have its moments of the almost fearsome SFA burn, however, as on "Lazer Beam" ("Take a shine of our lazer beam/And we'll cleanse all the evil within you"), a loony raving lark upon swooping strings, squinky synths and hippie-'60s guitar buzz, whose driving foreground franticness gets dubbed out, all of a sudden, leaving one adrift in a floating world of pure ether. "We will conquer Utopia in space chariots..."

Super Furry Animals' music 行 an idiosyncratic squishing-down of an extraordinarily broad stylistic range 行 has developed and grown into something truly beautiful. They are the most musically progressive and far-reaching pop band on the planet 行 at least among those groups whose music remains accessible on a potentially mass scale. I like to imagine them topping alternative pop charts the world 'round, even as I'm enjoying never being able to pinpoint where exactly they're coming from.

"It's a clash between conservative songwriting and sonic adventure," says Gruff. "We've never quite grasped why songwriters in rock bands don't like overwhelming people sonically, with surround-sound systems and all the rest of it. And as a band, there's a lot of musical differences; we clash, but never in a personal way. I think it means that the music's never too predictable for ourselves, and I think it's quite important for us that we don't actually know how the record's gonna turn out when we start it."

In this case, they wrapped it up with "Cabin Fever," whose dolorously touching solo piano couches a simple sentiment: "Welcome back, my friend." When you hear Gruff add "The future now is wide open and clear" to the tinkling plinks of a ratty old synth, you'll gaze up at the stars and believe it.