[4 September 2007]
Super Furry Animals’ 2005 LP, Love Kraft, will most likely be remembered as a very elaborate transitional album. It initially registered as a disappointment with many fans that found it poky and overcooked, as if the band’s trademark volatility had waked and baked and drifted off into some pipe-dreamt creative lethargy. That’s a pretty rough and unfair assessment. In fact, the record simply made you work to like it, to untangle its choked-blossom orchestrations and reap some well-hidden rewards. But it was an experiment, too, a chance to fully dissolve a preexistent musical identity in the atmosphere of a foreign stage design. It was, arguably, a path the band had started down with 2003’s Phantom Power, in which the Furries’ screwier sensibilities, so integral to records like Radiator (1997), Guerrilla (1999), and Rings Around the World (2001), were slowly bled from their modus operandi.
The Furries’ eighth studio album, Hey Venus!, finds the Welsh band modestly reignited after Love Kraft‘s palette-cleansing breather. “The Gateway Song”, the aptly titled opening track, deliberately rebuffs the Love Kraft methodology. Its 43-second runtime is far from the seven-minute indulgence of Love Kraft‘s “Zoom!”, and it also serves as proof that the band’s off-the-cuff irreverence is still part of its identity. Though it is not a past-snatching “return to form” record (thankfully, Super Furry Animals are too busy evolving to regress), Hey Venus! is everything its predecessor was not: immediately likeable, swiftly paced, and mercilessly brief (it clocks in at 36 minutes).
This is still the work of latter-day Furries—it’s less chaotic, more interested in perfecting genre experiments rather than detonating them—but the Gainsbourg-prog of Love Kraft has been elbowed aside by the reappearance of peppier vintage pop fetishes: an embrace of Phil Spector classicism, ‘70s-era chamois-textured Beach Boys, and the sophisticated varnish of psych-pop bands like the Zombies. (The two exceptions are “Carbon Dating” and “Battersea Odyssey”, written and sung by keyboardist/synthman Cian Ciaran and lead guitarist Huw Bunford, respectively, both of which perfect the cloud-tasting sprawl that Love Kraft so brazenly desired.)
That temperamental eclecticism has, over the years, come to shape the Super Furry Animals’ very sound. They now maintain a semi-consistent sort of unison rather than encourage combat between polar opposite sounds. Still, the greatest thing about the band continues to be its refraction of any musical archetype (for Hey Venus!, that includes girl groups, doo-wop, funk, and silk-sheeted soul) through a prism of oddity: the Welsh tongue wrestles with (and often gets the best of) the English language, and pop formalism is appraised with acid-scarred eyes. It’s like watching familiar things happen from an unfamiliar perspective. “Run-Away” pinches the tambourine-augmented major-to-minor crush of “Be My Baby” and packs it all into a towering psyched-out heartbeat. The lyrical sentiment matches that of any pining Ronette wannabe (“I could have told you lies / It would have made me die a little”), but the music resonates like a rocket’s pre-takeoff rumblings. “Show Your Hand”, the album’s first single, is similarly rooted in classic pop balladry, but its stride and melody are suppler. The band brings the rock on tracks like “Neo Consumer”, “Baby Ate My Eight Ball”, and “Into the Night”, a prog/funk/exotica hybrid spiced with congas and a hammered dulcimer. The hammered dulcimer goes on to make repeated appearances throughout the record, dissolving in the woozy “Carbon Dating” and ringing out repetition in “Suckers!”, a tumbling swirl of a pop song that loops its A and B sections in a slowly escalating drama.
As was the case in 2005, Hey Venus! arrives amid a spell of Super Furry Animals-related activity: Gruff Rhys, the band’s lead singer, released his second solo album, Candylion, earlier this year, and bassist Guto Pryce recently assembled Furry Selection, a Trojan compilation of reggae tracks. It’s their first record in ten years without artwork by longtime collaborator/monster man Pete Fowler (Japanese artist Keiichi Tanaami designed the somewhat repulsive cover art), and their first since Phantom Power without production assistance from Mario Caldato, Jr. (David Newfeld, best known for his work with Broken Social Scene, served as Hey Venus!’ producer). And although the closing track, “Let the Wolves Howl at the Moon”, a laidback, country-tinged sing-along, is indicative of Love Kraft‘s lingering influence, Hey Venus! is still a forward-moving document of a band that survives by gradually altering the direction of its strange, wonderful trip.