Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Super Furry Week Day 5: Music

What better way to mark the final day of Super Furry week than to talk about the thing that really matters: the songs.

Super Furry Animals share a shelf in my heart with Pulp as one of the few bands who deserve to be called pop stars. For me they are proper pop stars: intelligent, eclectic, informed, quotable and opinionated. They seem to enjoy the responsibility of putting on a show and reciprocate with films, yeti costumes, space helmets, quadraphonic sound systems, handwritten cue-cards, light shows, mid-set rave sessions, inflatable animals, decorated guitars and tanks. They think like fans and make sure that their releases offer something more for fan’s money than just another way to listen to the music. Most of all, like all the best groups, they are a gang; self reliant and seemingly untainted by success.

I can’t deny I’m a sucker for a noble cause. My record collection is littered with the outputs of artists whose music never quite reached (or in some cases sustained) the level I hoped it would because of everything else associated with the band. I am easily lured in with a great single or two in nice packaging and then sucker-punched by a good quote. Before I know it I’m barracking for chart success for complete strangers.

Take the Manic Street Preachers for example. Most of their pre-Holy Bible output is pretty average. It didn’t matter though because they were so thrilling to behold and theirs was a battle for the hearts and minds of the nation. Similarly I like to spend time eating sandwiches and thinking how marvellous life could have been if Kenickie had released more music that matched their look and
genius in front of an interviewer. Liam and Noel gave good quote in their heyday but they were nothing compared to Marie, Emmy-Kate and Lauren. And they had nicer hairclips.

It’s affirming then that the Super Furries’ music reflects everything else that goes on around the band. They’ve also stayed remarkably consistent over their 15 or so years and Dark Days / Light Years contains songs that rank up there with their best. So, with that in mind and by way of presenting yet another list in the guise of a Beginner’s Guide… let me offer my own tuppence-worth on how to buy, borrow or download your way to Furry Heaven.

* * * * * * * *
First Base
Most ‘Best of’ compilations are pretty rum affairs, but the truth is that Super Furry Animals have always released great singles. 2004’s Songbook: The Singles Volume 1 is a not only a great introduction for the uninitiated but for everyone else it’s just a damn good listen. It contains all 21 of their singles since from 1996 – 2004 as well as Blerwytirhwng? from their first EP, the snappily titled Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (In Space). Every track is wonderful, and well worth having. You should also pick up Show Your Hand from Hey Venus! which came out after Songbook.

Second Helpings
If you’ve listened to the singles and decided that you want more, the idea of checking out nine studio albums can be a daunting prospect. However, if you do want to tread the album route there are a couple of points that work in your favour.

Firstly, there are no genuine duds amongst the Furry albums proper (although I’d posit that Hey Venus! is the least satisfying – Show Your Hand or not). Secondly, the band still believe in the idea of an album proper, to be listened to from start to finish, so you’ll get your money’s worth investing in a long player. You’ll also get beautiful instrumentals like Phantom Power’s Father Father #1 and #2 or (A) Touch Sensitive from Rings Around the World which is like the Get Carter theme redone by the
BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

If you don’t want to think about it too much, there is a general consensus that Radiator, Guerrilla and Rings Around the World are the ‘best’ albums. I’d add Love Kraft and Dark Days / Light Years to that list too, but lots of people were quite down on Love Kraft when it came out. I think this is might be because it’s not as eclectic or experimental as others, but if you want blissed-out loved-up harmony-strewn lurve tunes then there’s few better.

However, assuming you’ve got the singles and you can’t afford to buy all the albums here are some choice non-single cuts to consider:

Chupacabras (Radiator): 1 minute 26 seconds of intense homage to fabled South American goat killing vampire monster with immensely singable pigeon-Spanish chorus

Gathering Moss (Fuzzy Logic): Languid Spanish guitars underpin anthem to relationship inertia where we find ‘you and I, united by itemised bills.’

Ohio Heat (Love Kraft): CSNY style-harmonies, pedal steel and more talk of foxes. Gorgeous.

Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home) (Guerilla) Fog horns, chopped up vocals, bicycle bells, rhythms built from ringtones, chipmunk voices and lyrics that boast about City and Guild certificates and mobile phone ownership – one of the key insane pop moments from their everything and the kitchen sink album.

Guacamole (B-side of If You Don’t Want Me to Destroy You) Superbly raucous insomnia-themed mashed avocado madness featuring Gruff’s rockabilly Elvis voice, sadly now retired.

Run Christian Run (Rings Around the World) A fine example of the Furries' ability to apply repetition to any genre to devastating effect. A beautiful melody with lyrics condemning Jimmy Swaggart-types builds to an immense soaring crescendo that could take the roof off a church.

Valet Parking (Phantom Power): disposable but lovely travelling song replete with ba-ba-bah lounge chorus, sound effects and the first instance of Gruff’s off-microphone talking (‘coming up to Berlin I have a minor accident…’)

Download (Radiator) – one of my favourite SFA tracks. Lyrics offering a meditation on life are delivered by two Furries – one in each speaker – against a gentle piano-riff which throbs its way to a teary end. Sublime.

Zoom! (Love Kraft) More slow-building dreaminess, this time with horns and heavenly choirs imploring ‘I can’t get enough of this, kiss me with apoca-lips.’

No Sympathy (Rings Around the World) gentle country guitars and some surprisingly nasty lyrics (‘you deserve to die’) meld into ba-ba-bahs before handing over to Cian for some snapshot drum and bass during which Bunf’s steel guitar and Gruff’s voice are fed to a rampaging robot who shits them out the other side and into a black hole. All the sweeter because it is followed by Juxtaposed With U on the album...

Calimero (B-side of Herman loves Pauline) Possibly a tribute to a Japanese anime chicken, this was a guitar thrashing sing-along live favourite for years.

Receptacle for the Respectable (Rings Around the World) Infamously featuring Paul McCartney on carrot chomping duties this is another song of two halves, this one 50% Coffee and TV chug and 50% ‘pantomime death metal’ according to Gruff.

Arnofio / Glo in the Dark (B-Side of Something for the Weekend) and another… sensing a pattern here? Although recorded much earlier than Receptacle, A/GITD was the song(s) that raised the bar on recording songs that change direction half way through. Half Welsh, lilting, pulsing, gentle and then without any warning the band switch to English (‘hey swimmers, watch for sharks, they’re gonna get you cos you glow in the dark’) and glam rock.

Frequency (Love Kraft): More harmonies that seem to lift you up to the clouds and leave you there. Lyrics seems to suggest incitement to riot. Gently.

Nightvision (Guerilla) The Batman theme re-imagined with a sub-sonic bass at three in the morning whilst under the influence of any number of possible hallucinogens with Gorky’s Peanut Dispenser as a guide.

The Piccolo Snare (Phantom Power) The true work of genius on Phantom Power is Slow Life but the Piccolo Snare is another standout track from an album that is best listened to as a whole. Reflecting the anti-Iraq War sentiments of the time it includes singing in the round, several sets of complex harmonies and a reflective slow funk outro with backwards guitars and chimes.

Mountain People (Radiator): possibly coincidence but this came out at a time when it seemed all bands were trying to come up with epic seven-plus minute I Am the Resurrection-type album (and live show) closers to leave listeners emotionally drained (see also The Private Psychedelic Reel, Champagne Supernova, Come On, Essex Dogs). The ace in the Furries’ hole was Cian who comes across here like a kid who has necked the band’s entire stash of pills and then been let loose on this slow building strum with a 303. The lyrics – ‘they don’t care about you and me, obviously…’ would be thematically revisited a number of times, whilst the idea that the band probably did live in mountain caves sometimes does occasionally still seem plausible.

Outside Interests
The band have always had fingers in other pies, some of their own making and others as guests. Perhaps unsurprisingly Gruff has proved the most recognisable member outside of the band but he has also been the most prolific and had the most success in terms of sales.

Gruff’s dulcet tones have graced a few other artists’ works. He was one of the first voices to appear on a Mogwai LP (2001’s Rock Action) taking the lead on
Dial: Revenge and providing backing on 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong. He also featured to notably similar effect on FC Kahuna’s Fear of Guitars (from Machine Says Yes) and Do's and Don'ts on Boom Bip’s Blue Eyed in the Red Room. Boom Bip and Gruff famously got back together in 2008 for Stainless Style, released under the Neon Neon moniker. Click here for my opinion on Stainless Style, safe in the knowledge it hasn’t changed a jot.

As well as his two solo albums (2005’s Welsh language Yr Atal Genhedlaeth and 2007’s predominantly English
Candylion), Gruff had a full pre-Furry career with the band Ffa Coffi Pawb (literally ‘everybody’s coffee beans’ but depending on how you say it becomes ‘fuck off everyone.’ A best of (Ffa Coffi Pawb Am Byth) was released in 2004 on the Furries’ Placid Casual label and is well worth checking out, especially Valium which sounds like early SFA.

Ffa Coffi Pawb also featured Daf on drums, which is where you’ll find him for his current extra curricular activities as a member of
The Peth. The band notably features actor Rhys Ifans on vocals, but don’t let that put you off. Ifans’ links to Super Furry world include a stint as singer in their pre-fame days and the rambling stoned answer phone message featured on Long Gone from Fuzzy Logic.

The Peth (meaning the Thing) is mostly driven by Daf who wrote many of the songs for their debut album,
the Golden Mile and it’s actually pretty great. The vocals and harmonies are not a million miles away from SFA, whilst the music is pitched like a cross between Radiator-era Super Furries and Oasis or (and I mean this as a compliment) the Rutles. You can hear what I mean via their My Space page which also has a couple of clips. (NB: don’t bother typing 'Peth' into Wikipedia. It redirects you to Astrid Peth, Kylie Minogue’s character in Dr Who, which coincidentally is filmed in Cardiff).

Not to be outdone, everyone’s favourite techno-monkey Cian has also released his own music as part of the lo-fi bleepy collective
Acid Casuals, working alongside former Big Leaves member Kev Tame. They released their debut album Omni in 2006 and it’s contents would be familiar to anyone who has seen SFA live over the years and heard Cian’s mid-set techno genius. The music is as warm and bleepy as you’d expect, and has a similar aesthetic to the work of Australian lady electronic futurists, Artificial whilst recalling late eighties / early nineties acts like Tricky Disco and LFO. Acid Casuals are due to release more music in 2009 and you can get a taster at myspace.com/acidcasualsmusic.

Yes, Yes, Yes, but you’ve told me nothing I didn’t know already
Oh well, sorry. I tried. I was going to tell you about Zabrinski, a now defunct Welsh band who recorded throughout this decade and who offer an SFA influenced
back catalogue which is still fantastic in its own right. 2005's Ill Gotten Game is a great place to start, with Hit the Rez clearly under the influence of Slow Life, but in a very good way. But you probably know that too. Sorry.

And in the end…
So there you go. Super Furry week is over. And it was longer than a regular week, which is nice too. If you still need more, you will find a far larger plethora of Super Furry data updated regularly and lovingly at fan site
SuperFurry.org. BBC Wales has also dedicated many pages of the interweb to their favourite band here. You can also find out all things official through SuperFurry.com.

For those who can recall last week, I had hoped to be able to contribute in some small way to Dark Days / Light Years avoiding the fate of its predecessors and plummeting from the charts despite being one of the best albums of the year. The result? A resounding flatline... this week’s UK Album Chart shows no change at all from last week’s number 53 position. But hey, at least I had some fun and didn’t hurt anyone. Thanks to everyone who stayed for the week. Hope you had fun too.

Super Furry Animals am Byth!

1 comment:

Tucker said...

There is a whole week of this? I just read this post and it's sublime. How do I read about so many critics and bloggers loving SFA so much and lauding their musical genious, yet i never meet anyone in my daily life, nor friends, that ever even seem to know who they are. Aigh - I must not know cool enough people :)