Cardiff, Wales’ Super Furry Animals have been the definitive example of progressive pop music since 1996, always one step ahead of their peers and ready to buck expectations while presciently setting the trends. They’ve mutated and experimented more frequently (and with more accuracy) than Radiohead, plundering the pop mines with increasingly refreshing results while Blur and Oasis bumbled through identity crises. Along with Supergrass (it must be the magical prefix!), the Furries—Gruff Rhys, Dafydd Ieuan, Huw Bunford, Guto Pryce, and Cian Ciaran—have proven themselves to be the best British band of the last 10 years while remaining relatively obscure outside the UK. And while most bands celebrate the decade mark (if they make it that far) by losing members or losing their edge, the Furries have maintained both their original lineup and relevance.
Perhaps it’s the Furries’ deep-seated need to perpetually morph, from song to song and album to album, that leaves many potential fans perplexed; the shifts from rock to electronic to punk to folk to country and back again escape the conveniences afforded by easy definition. In addition to constantly redefining themselves, the Furries set the bar high for eclectic artistes, releasing records in their native tongue (the all-Welsh Mwng, recorded for a mere $3,500 and the record-holder for best-selling Welsh language album), offering multimedia accompaniments to 5.1 album mixes (the DVD versions of Rings Around the World and Phantom Power), and commissioning radical remixes of their material (Phantom Phorce). And yet, the band’s most endearing trait is its knack for blending social commentary with utter absurdity: for example, their most recent tour saw each show close with a performance of the politically charged “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” (incorporating samples of Bill Hicks—“all governments are liars and murderers”—and not-so-subtle visuals of George W. Bush and Tony Blair), delivered cheekily in shaggy Yeti costumes. Their music is protest and satire and entertainment—it’s prosatertainment!
To cleanse our palettes for Rhys’s solo debut and the Furries’ seventh studio album (due later this year), Songbook: The Singles, Vol. 1 is a celebration of the Furries’ idiosyncrasies and a reinforcement of their importance. Like the b-side collection Outspaced, Songbook excels with a formidable continuity not unlike any of the studio albums. This is due, in large part, to Songbook‘s sequencing: instead of chronological order, the singles are arranged to put as much emphasis on order and flow as the songs themselves—think of it as a well-conceived mix. Comprised of one song from their 1995 debut EP Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyndrobwl (in space) (the Guinness record holder for longest title), four from Fuzzy Logic (1996), four from Radiator (1997), three from Guerrilla (1999), one from Mwng (2000), three apiece from the Furry masterpiece Rings Around the World (2001) and Phantom Power (2003), and two stand-alone singles (“The Man Don’t Give a Fuck”, “Ice Hockey Hair”), Songbook thrives on newfound juxtapositions.
Songbook offers some great re-imagined adjacencies: “(Drawing) Rings Around the World” snugly nudges its mega-chorus up against the equally bombastic “God! Show Me Magic”; the sprawling, Steely Dan-sampling “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” (the f-bomb is dropped 52 times…do the Furries hold two Guinness records?) provides ample runway for the loose, skewed tale of Einstein’s conception, “Hermann Loves Pauline”; “The International Language of Screaming” slams its brakes breathlessly into the glassy eyed Cali-pop of “Hello Sunshine”; and the cinematic brushstrokes of “It’s Not the End of the World?” contrast startlingly with the Brazilian-infected “Northern Lites”. It’s a true musical smorgasbord of the many faces of the Super Furry Animals, an ecstatic and complicated attempt to describe a band that fights pigeonholing at every turn.
Although the Furries have an immaculate track record of choice singles (you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad song in their catalog), some of their greatest album songs are noticeably missing (if a best-of compilation is ever assembled, I expect to see “Receptacle for the Respectable”, “Ymaelodi Â‘r Ymylon”, “Shoot Doris Day”, “No Sympathy”, “The Undefeated”, “Liberty Belle”, “Bass Tuned to D.E.A.D.”... damn, the list goes on!). Such a distinction is an irrelevant one, for this is a singles collection, not a best-of, and should be judged accordingly. Obviously, most Super Furry Animals fans will already own everything on Songbook; for anyone who hasn’t looked at the world in Furryvision, I envy you. While I would recommend Rings Around the World as the ultimate Furry record, Songbook is a fine introduction to the best band of the last decade that you haven’t been listening to. That’s something worth celebrating.