You can just imagine Gruff asking the band; “hey lads, erm... lets do a bad-ass song about an advert featuring a fluffy black chick”.
This month, young tyro James Waterson and old sea dog Richard Foster finally sat down and aired their opinions over Super Furry Animals; a set of opinions that had first taken shape on a trek over some dour Yorkshire moorland back in December 2005. Some booze was procured and the two were locked in the Incendiary shed until they had both calmed down...
James: The cover art of Super Furry Animals' second album depicts a masked chipmunk-like creature wandering the run-down streets of an anonymous city. The artwork's palette is basic and bright. The image itself is daft, is faintly disturbing and hides some witty observations beneath the surface. Ignoring the fact that they had the chagrin to proudly entitle their breakthrough release Radiator for no apparent reason Music industry logic states quite clearly that, well, old sport, you really shouldn't be allowed to get away with that sort of thing. But quite frankly they don't give a f***. They even wrote a song about it y'know.
Signed (maybe) to musically cleanse the cash Creation had made from Oasis, SFA were never expected to have that much of an impact. And it's strange to see how alien they remain to the mass public despite a knack for sell out tours and albums consistently turning out to be hits. Whether performing acoustic sets in village halls or headlining festivals they've remained a constant on the fringes of the mainstream for over a decade and yet have failed to register any lapses in their creativity thus far. So let's take a minute to sort out the best and the not-quite-best from their back catalogue:
Fuzzy Logic – 1996
James; Following a run of successful EPs their first album showed SFA's blitzkrieg-pop sound paying tribute to the student world that they inhabited at the time. However, unlike future collaborators Goldie Lookin' Chain, this lot manage to rattle through Tommy Cooper tributes, odes to pet Hamsters and drug culture in a way that pays the due reverence whilst remaining decidedly tongue-in-cheek. The guitar-heavy selection of 12 songs appears to be – at times - standard mid-nineties guitar band fare; Fuzzy Logic is certainly held together with discernible Britpop sing-a-long undertones on the likes of Something for the Weekend and Frisbee. It's certainly the most one dimensional of this group's albums but when the string sections kick in on undeniable highlight If You Don't Want Me To Destroy You it's clear that this was a band with something to prove.
Radiator – 1997
(James); ...where we first see the aforementioned collaborations with graphic artist Pete Fowler that would become as central to the SFA's image as Gruff Rhys' drawn-out and sometimes dulcet tones are to this album. Allowing their rave background a say in the musical direction of Radiator resulted in snippets of electronica-lite appearing throughout. This joyous meeting of mainstream pop sensibilities and glam rock with a twist of experimentation has created something clever, original and utterly accessible; every track hits you with its full force on first listen yet it grows even further into some swaggering behemoth with every listen. Just take Chupacabras, 90 seconds of nonsensical throwaway garbage that remains fantastically listenable after 100s of plays. The success of this self-aware pop album and the five singles drawn from can be the only reason for its lack of retrospective kudos. And part of the problem is that you're more likely to hear him out of Kaiser Chiefs paying tribute than your scene loving indie groups. Unfair, yes, but it does little to undermine the brilliance contained within.
Richard; Don't forget the epic Mountain People, possibly one of their finest moments; boasting the sort of bonkers tail-out not heard since Tago Mago era Can...
Guerrilla – 1999
James; Ah, Guerilla. So this is how you react against the onset of mainstream acclaim. Apparently an album that was recorded while undergoing some turn of the century identity crisis, Guerrilla is certainly a divisive album. An album that was also almost entirely driven by Cian's electronic wizardry; it's the least cohesive release of their career, veering from Salsa to trip-hop and lacking any true stand-out tracks. The Turning Tide is the nearest we get to Radiator's style and as a result it's a welcome respite from the 'experimental' likes of Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home) which at best can be described as interesting, at worst little better than the latest ringtone craze. (Richard; I love that track!) The meandering, drawn out approach to the song-writing show-cased here does have its successes – Some Things Come From Nothing is notable as a Spartan rumination on modern life that comes across brilliantly but there's precious little to make it stand out from the crowd. After all, if we want electronica we'll dig out our Warp Records catalogue, ta.
Richard; Oofph. That was a bit of a harsh judgement, Jim. Guerrilla is actually a very interesting listen and does contain their greatest single, Northern Lights, a veritable two fingers at the pop charts (as if putting steel drums on a record was ever going to find acceptance from the likes of a late-nineties audience, I ask you)... Plus there is the class extra track (no, I'm not giving away where it is, you will just have to go and play the CD...)
Mwng – 2000
James; after Creation Records folded the group reassembled to record a low-key release for their own Placid Casual label. Set to tape in extra fast time with minimal production interference (because, let's be honest here, they did it in their own basement) this entirely Welsh language album is what Guerrilla should have been – bold and with an obstinate streak yet not so rebellious as to forget to pack the tunes. Indeed while Ysbeidiau Heulog has much in common with the previous album's Night Vision; the latter is an unlistenable dirge and here the listener is treated to a clever slice of pop that formed the lead single. Standout Dacw Hi showcases the benefits of the language barrier to this ignorant Englishman, in that the lush arrangements and the soaring vocals present an all-round musical package that is made even better by the failure to know whether you're singing along to a tale of teenage love or something far more sinister...A lost masterpiece.
Richard; I like the extra CD, Mwyng Bach, more than the main release actually -I think only available to US/European customers - with the cracking Calimero, one of the hardest-rockin', most bonkers tracks they have recorded (You can just imagine Gruff asking the band; "hey lads, lets do a bad-ass song about an advert featuring a fluffy black chick"). As for the last track on Mwyng Bach, (Nid) Hon Yw'r Gan Sy'n Mynd I Achub yr laith, well it is truly brilliant... sublime stuff.
Outspaced – 2000
Richard; Outspaced is a collection of early B-sides and rarities. I would still rate this as one of my favourites, it's certainly the most played SFA LP I have. It's a great introduction to their way of thinking I feel, and is a good companion to Songbook, showing the dark underbelly -so to speak - of their creative canon. The songs here are perhaps more raucous than a lot of the album material, but that doesn't make them any less good. Oh no. I love the ridiculous titles, almost thought-forms in themselves; Arnofio/Glow in the Dark or Focus Pocus/Debiel sound magical even without hearing the recordings that go under the respective names...There are things on here that crop up elsewhere (Man Don't Give a Fuck, Blerwytirhwng) but who cares? Smokin' is genius, frankly and Dim Brys Dim Chwysm is a lovely instrumental that builds into a tremendous finish. There's nothing here that's filler. An essential purchase.
Rings Around The World – 2001
James; with normal service resumed SFA set about making a commercial and critical comeback in this good, but far from perfect, release. New label Epic's millions can certainly be heard through the wiser, grown up sound debuted here. Combining the best bits of their previous releases was an interesting move for a band famed for its innovation yet the results revealed them to be capable of intricate, swirling melodies that wouldn't sound out of place as the soundtrack to some Hollywood Blockbuster. Of course the faults are clear; over reliance on the past means that sometimes the glamour slips into unfortunate pastiche – the title track's similarity to Status Quo being a bit too close for comfort at points – but overall it's a very slick (if occasionally MOR) package.
Richard; I thought this LP didn't half sound like Brian Wilson had written the songs at times. It's my least favourite release of theirs, having said that, Sidewalk Surfer Girl does possess that fab tail-out chorus and you can't really argue with the (deliberately?) over-lush Juxtaposed with U or Receptacle for the Respectable, with all those McCartney-esque, celery-tastic nods to Smile...
Phantom Power – 2003
James; ...with which the boys from the valleys approach a fickle music industry with a ingenious battle plan – keep it exactly the same as before but remember to check that each track has a pulse. The result is an intriguing album. Melancholy and lacking any immediacy over time, Phantom Power shows its true colours as a wonderfully maudlin mix of influences, while remaining distinctly SFA. Finding a new audience through the use of Hello Sunshine next to The Killers et al on The O.C. shows how they have gone full circle and all without too many blips along the way. Other than a stomping but frankly hogwash Golden Retriever the tracks focus on gentle build ups before exploding in a burst of multi-coloured melodies that gently worm their way into your mind.
Richard; As the fake producer says on Phantom Phorce, they go and write a rocking track, a sure-fire hit single and add lyrics about a dog, "yes that's right, a dog"... Still I love the fact that they released it as a single. A fabulous and gentle release, it had none of the forced whimsy that jarred on Rings, Liberty Belle being a stand-out track for me.
Phantom Phorce -2004
Richard; This is a strange record, replete with a somewhat camped-up vocal guide throughout the entire LP. (In reality kids, it's not a mad American producer, just someone from the SFA camp pretending to be a mad American producer). The stillborn twin of Phantom Power, Phantom Phorce reveals itself to be a great idea; take the aborted sessions for your LP, and give them to other people to remix, and let them do the rest. And, in fairness, what a great set of remixes they are. Particularly good is the Piccolo Snare (remixed by Four Tet) and Bleed Forever (mixed by Brave Captain).
Richard; What you notice with this record (released in the autumn of 2004, seemingly at the record company's insistence) is, as well as their longevity, the confirmation of Super Furry Animal's consistent quality. It's not easy to make sharp pop records without falling prey to the fashions of the times but SFA's inherent otherworldliness has saved them on countless occasions. Of course their music could never sound dated anyway, its timeless pop. As a record, Songbook is a great overview; Hometown Unicorn and Blerwytirhwing vying for attention with Northern Lights and Juxtaposed with U. Splendid and an excellent starting point. For a longer (and frankly very drunken) review, see elsewhere in this magazine.
Yr Atal Genhedlaeth (Gruff Rhys) - 2005
A low key release before Love Kraft; in retrospect it can be seen more as a collection of personal, off-kilter stuff than material for the main SFA release. It is interesting to set these beautiful vignettes against the epic sprawl of Love Kraft; as both facets of Rhys's extraordinary talent for melody can then be fully appreciated. My two favourites are the story of PwdinWy and the acid campfire sing-along of Ni Yw Y Byd. Gruff uses some ridiculous instruments too. Check out his explanatory interview here, http://www.incendiarymag.com/modules.php?story_id=367&name=News&new_cat=1&file=article&sid=367
The longer LP review here http://www.incendiarymag.com/modules.php?story_id=331&name=News&new_cat=4&file=article&sid=331
And Gruff's own explanation here (bless him!)
Love Kraft – 2005
Richard; Possibly their most winsome and self indulgent, if not bloody minded album to date. Gruff once remarked to Incendiary that the (then) forthcoming LP "was loose and not angular, in fact we took the angles out". The odd, slightly duff track aside, (for me Let It Roll) this is a brilliant and incredibly focused piece of work. Utterly at odds with the straight-jacketed times we find ourselves in, Love Kraft kicks out vast sprawling odysseys, such as Cloud Berries, dealing with the big stuff – birth, love, death (etc, etc). The widescreen nature of this work (also replicated in Pete Fowler's cover art) is best seen on opener Zoom where the sound rivals Morricone for its sense of bravura. And the single Lazer Beam is utterly brilliant, perhaps one of their greatest, most definitive, most Super Furry statements. Fabulous stuff.
For a longer review, see here; http://www.incendiarymag.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=675
Words: Richard Foster and James Waterson.