Gruff Rhys, Hotel Shampoo
Reflective, intimate but feel-good stuff, with nary a rock guitar in earshot
For all their weirder aspects — the day-glo army tanks, the Yo Gabba Gabba!-on-a-bad-trip artwork — Super Furry Animals make records that are, primarily, beautiful and welcoming sensory experiences. For his third solo album (or fourth, if you count his electro excursion as Neon Neon with producer Boom Bip) frontman Gruff Rhys absents himself from the SFAs' abrasive techno and space-rock dimensions and goes for a low-key and poignant adult pop approach. It foregrounds a fact that SFAs' lysergic sturm-und-drang sometimes obscures: Rhys is a first-rate emotional songwriter, able to connect the domestic with the cosmic. Some of these eye-misting songs — especially "If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)" — wouldn't sound amiss if they were sung by next year's "X Factor" winner.
It's reflective, intimate but feel-good stuff, with nary a rock guitar in earshot. Instead, there are woozy chord changes, small but perfectly-formed string sections, rolling pianos and more muted trumpets than a New Orleans funeral line. The prevailing mood is of sunny reverie, as if the right music could be powerful enough to transport the Los Angeles sun to South Wales (well, Cardiff sits on its own West Coast and Rhys has never hidden his love of Brian Wilson). His voice in particular sounds just lovely — untutored and heavy on the Welsh accent for sure, but all the more direct for it.
Of course he can't keep his magnificent schizophrenia in check for a whole album. Half-way through "Christopher Columbus," which analogises the beginning of a bad relationship to the mixed blessings that flowed from the landings of 1492, the song suddenly starts sounding like Madness. "Patterns of Power" flips from an AOR acoustic chug into the synth-squelching paleo-funk world of Zapp or Parliament. This is what Gruff and the SFA do, and commercially speaking, maybe it's their enemy. But it's doubtful that the questing listener will feel short-changed by a record that sounds like three or four deeply satisfying albums all at the same time.