Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys likes to collect shampoo bottles from hotel rooms. It’s hard to tell how, if at all, this affects his artistic outlook, but it must be of some musical significance to Rhys. He named his third solo album Hotel Shampoo and has fashioned the cover art so that every track is represented as a different shampoo bottle. It’s not a flattering analogy to invite, since all hotel shampoos are probably the same, so we will have to resist reading into the concept and title any more than just being a nifty idea. And that’s fine, since Hotel Shampoo only pays dividends on the surface.
Like all solid pieces of craftsmanship, Rhys has all of his components in the appropriate places on Hotel Shampoo. From the outset he even had his sights on doing something outside the elastic limits of his extraordinary day job. “I thought that as I’m getting on a bit, the time had come to buy a suit and record an album of piano ballads,” he explains on his website. “However, I got bored, the record diversified and evolved—things turned out a bit differently…” So even in the throes of reinvention, so to speak, the guy just couldn’t help himself. And if Hotel Shampoo is considered a diversified outcome, the initial draft must have been a complete bore.
Since Rhys is foremost a popsmith, it’s only fair to focus on the album’s singles. One obvious standout is the leadoff track “Shark Ridden Waters”, which stirs two chords into a psychedelic swirl particularly well. After repeated listening, its vocal melody sounds like a genuine artifact from the British invasion instead of cheap homage. His south-of-the-(American)-border mockup “Sensations in the Dark” is certainly no less catchy, even if it does show Rhys as being more preoccupied with approximating a style than transcending it. These are Hotel Shampoo‘s brainworms.
The rest of the album falls into the labored camp. “Honey All Over” has a pleasant enough Brian Wilson-flavored setup, but insists on changing its pace too many times before you get around to tapping your feet. “Conservation Conversation”, an ode to ecology that feels anything but charged or urgent, plays out even worse. Seriously, the musical chords of this song don’t make any sense. Listening to it actually stresses me out. And what of the ballads that Rhys himself admitted to trying? One that his management camp is no doubt hanging its hopes on is “If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)”. “Achingly beautiful” is what his press release is calling it, though “aching” is a stretch. If you wanted someone to feel an ache, you would have to go for broke. “If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)” is pretty and plain, and it’s probably a good bet to say that the rest of the Animals realize that you just don’t become the Flaming Lips of Wales by making plain, down-the-middle ballads.
Hotel Shampoo is the sound of craft triumphing over inspiration. This alone hasn’t always been such a concern since a perfectly recorded, mixed, and mastered album can appeal to many different palettes out there. But after a while, you tire of the smoothed edges. You miss the jagged corners that threaten splinters. You want something more than… shampoo.