The Super Furry Animals have never needed gimmicks to sell themselves. Sure, the band’s shenanigans add to the attraction, but it’s always been the songs that sold the albums—not techno-fueled tanks or homemade Power Ranger helmets. Still, the Furries in concert have a reputation for lampooning their fans with giant projection screens, yeti costumes, surround-sound speakers, and, yes, gongs.
The last time the Super Furry Animals played Philadelphia, they rode on stage in a golf cart. So, understandably, there’s an odd sense of trepidation as the small crowd gathered at Philadelphia’s Starlight Ballroom notices that the stage is bereft of props.
Perhaps this stripped-down affair is in keeping with their latest album, Hey Venus!, which sounds like the Super Furry Animals through a strainer—sandblasted and streamlined. Apparently their new label boss, Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, commissioned a pop album. The Welsh five-piece certainly delivered on the challenge—11 songs in 36 minutes—but I’d argue that it’s always been a ‘pop’ band, albeit one with a skewed sense of what ‘pop’ actually is. In the band members’ minds, it encompasses the Beach Boys and Brazilian Tropicalia, T-Rex and techno, Steely Dan samples and Welsh lyrics. Most of all, though, it’s about melody.
Unfortunately, the band’s fans aren’t as abundant as their multi-part harmonies. As their repertoire has grown (Hey Venus! is the band’s eighth album), their fan base has seemingly shrunk; each show I’ve seen them play in Philadelphia has garnered less and less support. Some would argue that this is because the band peaked at the end of the ’90s (I personally find 1999’s Guerrilla to be their best album, while several friends swear by 2001’s Rings Around the World). But even if this is true, the Super Furry Animals’ current plateau is still loftier than most bands’ high points.
If some fans seem to be losing interest, the band members haven’t lost interest in us. “This is a song about gambling,” states frontman Gruff Rhys, prior to the Beach Boys power-pop of “Show Your Hand”, adding, “Thank you for gambling on us tonight.” Those of us who did take a chance are handsomely rewarded with a strong, 23-song set, encompassing six albums, a few B-Sides, and an obligatory run through “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck”. On previous tours, the R-rated track was used as an uproarious set closer, complete with projected images of world leaders accompanied by the slogan: “All governments are liars and murderers.” Tonight, though, it gets thrown out earlier. While the song retains its lyrical impact, one can’t help but miss the visceral political imagery. “Golden Retriever” is also missing something: the accompanying video of its titular dog galloping behind the band. Instead, we’re faced with a darkened stage and the sight of roadies emerging every other song to change guitars.
Of course, this is the Super Furry Animals, so they do employ at least one gimmick for this tour. It appears in the form of a democratic voting device found on their website. The embedded system allows fans to vote for their favorite songs for the show they will be attending, with the band promising to play an indeterminate amount. For some reason, we Philadelphians choose obscure B-side “Mrs. Porter”. It’s jaunty and pleasant enough, but I would have preferred to hear something more muscular or majestic, like “Ice Hockey Hair” or “Herman Loves Pauline”.
While the majority of the songs are honest recreations of what we hear on CD, the band do attempt to mix things up at times. Some of their more raucous numbers, such as “Do or Die” and “Golden Retriever”, benefit from sheer live energy. Stripped of their studio sheen, they sound like raw encapsulations of their recorded counterparts. But others, like the calypso-tinged “Northern Lights” (which is deprived of its steel drums) and the carefully layered “Juxtaposed with U”, lose something in live translation. The former is played in the style of obscure Scottish band BMX Bandits. Whether it’s homage, or a tongue-in-cheek swipe at the C86-sounding group, the Super Furries apply their particular attributes to the song with certain aplomb. In doing so, they turn the chiming tune into a heavy-handed dirge.
It’s one of the few missteps they make. After opening up with the aptly titled “Gateway Song”, (which also opens their current album), the band plow into the Phil Spector pop of “Run Away”, which finds Rhys lamenting a lost love by informing her: “I still recall your banking details.” The crowd obviously still recalls the band’s back catalogue, as “She’s Got Spies”, which dates back to 1997, is met with wild applause. Best of all, though, is Rings Around the World’s “Receptacle for the Respectable”. Introduced as “five songs in one,” it’s the archetypal Super Furry Animals song. Combining their pop, rock, and electronic sensibilities with their eccentric gimmickry (Sir Paul McCartney chomped carrots on the recorded version), the song is succinct, yet sprawling.
Of the newer songs, “Carbon Dating”, written by keyboardist Cian Ciaran, is the most lovingly crafted. Responsible for the electronic influences on the group’s earlier albums, “Carbon Dating” finds Ciaran delving into doo-wop for a textural ballad that builds on multi-tracked backing vocals and synthesized strings.
While I do miss the electronic aspect that Ciaran once brought to the band, I also remember complaining a couple of tours ago when they played a 20-minute techno track. I thought it was a waste of time; that actual songs should have taken its place. Tonight, the band is far more economical. They return to the stage after only a minute for an elongated, eight-song encore that includes an unexpected reprisal of the Power Ranger helmet—Rhys wandering on stage to sing the sumptuous “Slow Life” through its eye.
The Super Furry Animals finish with the jaunty “Keep the Cosmic Trigger Happy”, and, as the band plays, guitarist Huw Bunford reveals a sign that states “Bleist Euch Treu,” which I believe translates to something like “Bless You Faithful.” The Super Furry Animals don’t need gimmicks to sell themselves, but a little gratitude still goes a long way.