April 11, 2002

Psychedelic-Schizophrenic Gem

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Eight months after its UK release, Rings Around The World, the fifth LP by those witty wicked Welshmen known as Super Furry Animals has dropped on these shores. It’s about damn time. I’ve often had great difficulty explaining Super Furry Animals to people. There’s really nothing out there that approaches the sheer brilliance and audacity of this group. Let’s start with a mind exercise. Imagine if Radiohead woke up on the right side of the bed and decided to make a record. Or even better, imagine if Elvis Costello’s new side project was recording, singing, and writing lyrics for The Flaming Lips’ parade of Coyne’s musical schizophrenia. Intrigued? SFA mercilessly blend Beach Boys powerpop, drum ‘n’ bass, jazz, IDM, lush orchestral pop, and 70’s soul. The result is one fun fucking record! Irresistible, adventurous pop that has the balls to do a complete 180 on your ass mid-song. Through it all, a smile won’t leave your face.

What makes this record so unique is that while incorporating a myriad of styles, it keeps the flow of the finest psychedelic records and still maintains a Beatles-esque catchiness. “Sidewalk Serfer Girl” begins with mellow guitar strumming over Gruf Rhys’ silky voice. Then, like a left hook coming out of nowhere, chugging distorted guitars and a stampeding drums mixed at a higher volume knocks you back for a few seconds only to segue into a chorus of mellow drum ‘n’ bass reminiscent of Squarepusher’s “My Red Hot Car.” I can’t explain it, but it works like a charm. Even more perplexing is “Receptacle for the Respectable” trotting along like a perfect sunny Britpop song when three minutes into the bliss, the song takes a two minute detour into an insane techno breakdown, with vocal effects making Rhys sound like Aphex Twin on “Come To Daddy.” It’s like watching cheery Paul McCartney turn into the ugly face of Richard D. James in an episode of the “Twilight Zone.” Speaking of Paul McCartney, the knight makes a guest appearance on “Receptacle for the Respectable.” And in true knightly fashion Sir Paul’s role is to munch on a carrot. No joke.

Not all of the tracks are as scatter-brained as the aforementioned pair; there are plenty of straight-up pop songs. However, when SFA write a conventional pop song it will have a great hook and drive, but the similarity will end there. SFA songs, especially on this album, are collages of sounds, layer upon layer of various arrangements- samples, horns, strings, voices, unexpected harmonies. Mysteriously the result is never spastic, the different elements fit together very naturally. An underlying pop sensibility and a fantastic ear for melody glues the elements together.

On quieter moments such as the mellow steel guitar driven “Run, Christian, Run” Super Furry Animals remind me of Jim O’Rourke’s Eureka. O’Rourke is actually quite a good comparison specifically in the sonic effect produced by his knack for the constant layering of instrumentation.

The first single, “Juxtaposed With U,” is one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard since, well … the last SFA album, and that one was completely sung in Welsh and still addictive. “Juxtaposed” is a soul number with an irresistible hook. Gruf Rhys’ vocals, sounding ironically enough like a less gruff Elvis Costello, swoon as he slyly delivers the infectious chorus of “you’ve got to tolerate all the people that you hate/ I’m not in love with you but I won’t hold that against you.” Rhys’ lyrics, on the surface, seem to be playfully moronic, but upon further inspection reveal a tremendous amount of depth and thought.

Rings Around the World is SFA’s first major label record. After four great albums on the respectable indie Creation, it is great to hear them have the studio budget that can keep up with their demented minds. Though seldom, their ingenuity and layering at times becomes a bit distracting and detracts from the tunes. I am not sure whether this is the best SFA record. It’s hard to know since every album they’ve released has been fantastic. I’m tempted to say that Guerilla might have been better, but not by much and as with Radiohead, when you deal with a band of such a caliber the opinion sways on a daily basis.

About to complete this praise-laden review I am a bit anxious. I recall being at an SFA show in NJ and looking around the crowd to see one half ecstatic while the other half puzzled, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on and what does the word “mobile” mean. Maybe the Furries are too British, maybe too clever, maybe the cell phone revolution hadn’t taken over yet, maybe those that weren’t getting it, kissed mother bong a bit too fiercely. Who knows? Just know you’ll either love it or be confused. For the former-dive in, the pleasure is all yours.

Archived article by Maxim Pozdorovkin