After ascending to cult status in Wales and England following as couple of moderately successful EP's, the Welsh group Super Furry Animals netted a six record contract with a major label eager to capitalize on their devoted following. Electing to switch to English lyrics in order to secure a more mainstream audience (though subsequently, disheartened by their dearth of commercial success, the band would release yet another album sung solely in Welsh), Super Furry Animals released their debut album, the critically acclaimed but criminally obscure Fuzzy Logic.
As is always the case when a group prominently features humor and a quirky, offbeat sensibility, everyone rushed to brand the SFA as a novelty act; and, as is often the case, this label is far from the truth.
While the group's sound is a fusion of myriad disparate influences, ranging from prog to techno to hard rock, what ties these elements together is the band's mastery of pop melodies, to which each of these styles is invariably adapted.
Even at the beginning the group possessed exceptional songwriting skills, generating a plethora of hooks in whatever genre they married their pop sensibilities to. Their songs are infectiously catchy, their vocal melodies memorable and their riffs clever and innovative.
Their brilliant songwriting is enhanced by their eccentric persona, which suffuses all their songs with a unique, charming identity that differentiates them from all other pop acts. Their songs are often funny and they're always distinctive. In a time of a multitude of faceless, interchangeable pop groups it's critical to establish a unique identity, and that sets the SFA apart from many of their contemporaries.
Nearly every track on the album is catchy and memorable, though it sort of falls apart by the end, with the bland and repetitive closers Long Gone and For Now And Ever, which lack the energy and impeccable songwriting that characterized the album.
Nonetheless, this is an excellent album, with the group already proficient at their signature style of pop. Having already established their unique sound, all that remained was for the group to further refine their style to the point of perfection.
With little held back on their debut, the SFA were left with little choice but to focus on improving their already considerable songwriting skills, resulting in an album that's often hailed as the zenith of the band's abilities.
Whether it be on up-tempo numbers like the irresistibly catchy Herman Loves Pauline or the more low keyed tracks like the unforgettable Demons the songs are all crafted with tremendous care, resulting in pop music of the highest order.
The selection is diverse, shifting through both new and already explored territory for the group without ever losing the SFA sound. The band has truly mastered the art of the pop hook, and this is evident in every song, no matter what stylistic hybrid or fusion it is.
While a few tracks are somewhat less inspired than others there's nothing at all offensive or blatantly fillerish. The songwriting is at peak level for the band, with creativity running high and clever melodies exploding from the woodworks.
The band had ascertained their strengths on their first outing and play to them throughout the album without becoming complacent and abstaining from any experimentation. While the album doesn't take any huge risks at least a modicum of adventurousness is exhibited, with more elaborate instrumentation and a greater degree of diversity displayed.
Radiator is simply a spectacular pop album, containing a multitude of catchy, instantly memorable songs, abundant diversity and a unique, eminently likeable personality. There's little to find fault with, as the band tackles each genre with equal care, displaying an equal aptitude at penning memorable ballads and catchy fuzz rockers. The group never churns out bland, hookless filler, always making sure that each song has something to offer on a musical level. They've developed a unique persona for themselves that's present on each track, but only as a flavoring; their identity never eclipses the songwriting. The group have found an excellent balance between maintaining a distinct personality while preserving their attention to their songwriting, and the quality of this album is a testament to that feat.
Since their inception in the early nineties the Super Furry Animals have been a stunningly consistent rock outfit, penning top quality material seldom diluted by anything that could be termed filler. This leads one to wonder how a group, even one as prodigiously gifted as SFA, could produce such an abundance of content bereft of much in the way of weak links, an unending array of exhilarating rockers and immortal pop classics.
Out Spaced, a collection compiling much of the SFA's output that evaded release on the band's proper albums, finally dispels the enigma surrounding the scarcity of notable blemishes on the group's outings; the band has indeed generated their share of filler, they merely qualitatively compartmentalized their work, confining their lesser tracks to obscure B-sides and throwaway EPs.
That isn't to say that these imperfections are bad or offensive; a group as talented as the Super Furry Animals always engenders at least a modicum of worth and effort into all of their projects, no matter how minor. Nevertheless these numbers don't adhere to the high standards set by the group on their more prominent releases, and Out Spaced is a testament to the wide gulf separating the band's primary body of work and their considerably more perfunctory efforts.
Thus Out Spaced is riddled with defects, tracks that fail to reflect the full extent of the band's abilities. Dim Brys Dim Chwys is a drab instrumental, Smokin's refrain isn't sufficiently strong to merit its near mantra-like repetition (especially during its interminable ending, which would be the worst coda on the album were it not for the never-ending ordeal that constitutes the closing moments of the CD), Arnofio/Glo In The Dark is bifurcated into two mismatched sections that feel as if they were arbitrarily grafted together, resulting in quite a disjointed listen, Don't Be A Fool, Billy barely registers, let alone amounting to anything that could be called the least bit compelling, Pass The Time is a consummately awkward pop song (a rarity for the band given that that's generally their forte) and Carry The Can is purely forgettable.
None of these tracks are bad per se, but they also don't paint a very favorable impression of a group that's one of the best rock ensembles to emerge in the last few decades. Fortunately there are some hidden gems to compensate for this fundamentally lackluster selection, ensuring that the Super Furry Animals strengths are represented on the album.
The Man Don't Give A Fuck revolves around a recurring sample derived from Steely Dan's misanthropic anthem Showbiz Kids, and adroitly employs this soundbite to great effect, resulting in a highly entertaining rocker. Elsewhere Dim Bendith is simply beautiful, while Focus Pocus/Debiel may be another hybrid in the vein of Arnofio/Glo In The Dark but still fuses its disparate elements into a far more organic whole. Fix Idris is a bouncy, charming pop rocker, Pam V is immensely enjoyable and the closer Blerwytirhwng? is another winner (providing it's divorced from its insufferable, intentionally maddening coda).
Thus Out Spaced is certainly flawed and erratic, but in the long run it's still a solid product, with just enough in the way of obscure classics to redeem its inarguably severe failings. While much of the album is forgettable, none of the songs are genuinely bad; while Out Spaced has its fair share of outright misfires and middling efforts even these can be entertaining or, at the very least, interesting for fans of the band, while the better numbers can be enjoyed even by the SFA uninitiated.
Invariably most rarities collections can only be recommended to diehard fans of a group, and while Out Spaced is no different thanks to its profoundly inconsistent nature this can't be a criticism, given that the album makes no illusions about whom its target audience is comprised of. Out Spaced is aimed at hardcore Super Furry Animals fans, and these fans are virtually guaranteed to enjoy it, and in this regard the album can be considered a resounding success. I've heard that many superior rarities failed to make the cut for some incomprehensible, mystifying reasons, and thus the album could have been better with a more judicious track selection process, but thanks to a handful of lost SFA classics the album still merits a listen for all fans of the group.
There's an erroneous notion harbored by a plethora of critics and elite appreciators that featuring strange or humorous lyrics somehow trivializes pop material or diminishes or dilutes its potency. This line of thinking is egregiously flawed on a number of levels. For one thing, pop music was never known for exhibiting Dylanesque complexity or depth in its lyrics, and in this regard the offbeat and quirky lyrical antics of groups like the SFA and TMBG are infinitely preferable to insipid love song banalities and clichés or vapid surfing anthems.
And in the end what truly matters in a pop song is the caliber and catchiness of the music, and it's in this area that the SFA prove themselves to be one of the greatest pop band of this or any era. Once more they've produced a set of universally stellar tracks, featuring complex but catchy and memorable melodies spanning myriad genres and styles. Their songwriting is as tight as ever, and they're obviously not content to rest on their laurels from their previous triumphs.
The tracks are still distinctly SFA songs, but they never repeat themselves or recycle past melodies. Nearly every track is outstanding, from the hyper catchy Do Or Die to Night Vision with its killer riff and infectious repetition of the title in its chorus to the genuinely moving The Turning Tide to the techno fiesta Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home). The latter, in particular, displays that the group is still willing to take chances, and that these risks invariably pay off.
Coupling classic pop songwriting with a more modern sensibility and a pronounced penchant for diversity and idiosyncrasy is an endeavor fraught with peril, but the SFA make it appear exceedingly easy. They manage to make their work as complex, unique and diverse as possible without sacrificing even a fraction of catchiness or meldodicity. They never hide behind their now well established sound as an excuse to grow lethargic on the songwriting front, and they never grow timid with regards to experimentation; on the contrary, they constantly push their songwriting in new and creative directions. Ultimately, the SFA are everything one could desire from a pop group in this era, and that isn't even meant as a backhanded compliment.
A point of controversy in the group's catalogue, and the most dramatic, albeit short-lived, career move the band would make. Frustrated by their lack of commercial success, the group elected to release an album in their native language, thus alienating a large portion of their previously religiously devoted fanbase.
This reaction, while predictable, is consummately wrongheaded. The language barrier should not be an obstacle toward appreciating the album, as the vocal melodies are just as catchy and memorable in Welsh and the quality of the songwriting is as strong as ever. While it's a pity that the lyrics are indecipherable for the majority of their audience the music is so brilliant that at a certain point that ceases to be an issue.
What we have is yet another excellent pop album, their fourth in a row, filled to the brim with catchy melodies and an array of complex yet accessible hooks. By this point the band has honed their particular brand of pop to perfection, and seemingly effortlessly produce an armada of original and clever tunes. The album has a cohesive feel without every being redundant or repetitive, and the band is adept at clever structuring, alternating infectious pop rockers with moments of genuine beauty.
Those undeterred by the language issue will find that the album is, for the most part, on par with their previous work, and that the album is as unmistakably a SFA product as it would have been had the lyrics been penned in English. This isn't to say that the group's lyrics are superfluous or irrelevant; it's merely saying that the band's lyrics enhance their identity without actually composing it. Were the vocal melodies in any respect marred by the transition to Welsh then the results would have been catastrophic; as it is, with the melodic integrity preserved the listener is easily consoled and the mourning period for understandable lyrics will be brief.
Omitting Mwng from your SFA discography on the grounds of the shift to Welsh would be a grievous error, one no less foolish than neglecting the band altogether due to their customary silly, strange lyrics. The slightness of their lyrics has never been a detriment to them, and neither, in this case, is their foreign impenetrability for the American audience. The band succeeds because of their exceptional songwriting talents, and those are present in full force on this album. I'm certainly glad that they returned to the English language as their lyrics are always entertaining, but I wouldn't have been heartbroken had they decided to continue their adherence to their native tongue.
After intentionally antagonizing the preponderance of their audience on their last outing the SFA were once again ready to attempt to launch a commercial breakthrough. Signing with a major label they released their most immaculately produced album to date, an accessible showcase for the band's myriad talents.
And while it might be their most blatantly mainstream and aggressively commercial outing, the SFA spirit certainly remains intact and the songwriting is uniformly impeccable throughout the album. Glossy production doesn't negate the band's offbeat character, nor do attempts at hit production constitute pandering or selling out. In all honesty the group always had the proper ingredients to make it big, so attempts at commercialism only necessitate a modicum of adjustment.
The album is yet another pop masterpiece. Sidewalk Serfer Girl is an irresistible gem, the title track is infectious pop and Receptacle For The Respectable is a genre-defying marvel that remains captivating throughout all its stages, spanning a multitude of styles, each fully fleshed out, in the space of five minutes.
The album isn't perfect, however. It starts to drag toward the end due to an ill advised congestion of slower numbers. Each of these songs, taken independently, is quite strong, and certainly worthy of inclusion on the album. Crammed together, however, they make for a tedious affair, in dire need of an up tempo track to relieve the monotony.
This is a minor complaint, though, and the album remains yet another classic by the band. The songwriting remains exceptionally strong, and the band made few sacrifices in their endeavor to achieve mainstream success. The group's eccentric personality is preserved, as is their musical complexity. The band's formula was already conducive to their commercial ambitions, and thus the glossier production imposed on the album is only a small liability.
The album achieved only modest success, leaving the band the obscure cult heroes they'd been since the group's inception. The group's commercial hopes seem unattainable; if a brilliant album like this couldn't make them overnight stars then nothing can.
Dispirited after their dreams of commercial success were dispelled the band made some revisions to the formula that had sustained them for nearly the entire duration of their career. Phantom Power is slower, more serious and even somewhat more normal than their other material, rather lethargic and enervated energy wise with a more restrained, subdued and laconic sound.
Comparisons could be made to the more normal outings of other eccentric groups, such as Factory Showroom and White Pepper; like on those albums the band's identity is ultimately preserved, but certainly at a price. The lack of energy is a liability, and the album has a somewhat conservative feel, certainly an unwelcome development.
This conservative feel, however, cannot be applied to the album's closer, the dark, experimental, techno tinged Slow Life, a brave gambit by the group that ultimately pays off. It's a hypnotic, tenebrous psycho anthem that remains engaging through its seven minute running time, a testament to the fact that the band is still willing to take chances.
What redeems the rest of the album from its perpetually mid tempo slump is that the band's songwriting has never been stronger, and the album is overflowing with instant classics. The potency of these classics is somewhat diluted by their uniformly lackadaisical pace, and had some faster tracks been inserted as segues this problem would have been averted, but their brilliant craftsmanship still shines through and makes the album yet another winner.
Liberty Belle, with its ambient nature sounds, cheery atmosphere/dark lyrics contrast and sing-along chorus is a deserved fan favorite; Golden Retriever is a catchy rocker; Sex, War & Robots is an entrancing, haunting experience with incredibly powerful hooks, an instance where the slowness is used with extreme effectiveness; The Piccolo Snare has a brilliant contrast between its slow verses and anthemic chorus; and Bleed Forever features an excellent, unforgettable vocal melody.
In reality there are no truly weak tracks, and were some energy to be infused into it this would be on par with their best work. As it is, however, it fails to capture a side of the band, focusing only on one aspect of their sound. It feels like something of a betrayal. This isn't to say that all of their albums need to be carbon copies of Radiator and Guerrilla; it's simply saying that those albums had achieved a certain balance, and Phantom Power is far too lopsided in that department. This is still an excellent album, but it feels less like a SFA album than any of their previous outings. No matter what direction they take they'll produce exceptional material as long as this level of songwriting is maintained, but one would hope that the vicissitudes they'll undergo won't cause changes at the expense of some of their old strengths.
Love Kraft may very well be the group's most mature album; unfortunately, maturity is not necessarily a desired facet for a band of this nature, whose reckless spontaneity and perpetually hyper energy are amongst their chief assets.
Resultantly, LK is the band's weakest outing to this point; that it's still an excellent album is a testament to the group's strength.
One of the album's more egregious deficiencies is its erratic nature; while it contains some of the band's best work, it also includes passages that are somewhat on the bland side, a flaw that could never be attributed to the group in the past.
These sporadic bland patches are what masquerade as 'maturity,' replacing the frenetic pop songs of the past with slow, atmospheric sections, dirge-like tracks that fail to present anything meaningful in the way of creativity or melodies.
While the hazy, lethargic, dream-like sonic landscapes these tracks weave can be somewhat alluring, they're ultimately simply tedious, with a modicum of progression transpiring over the course of the songs, as if the band was aspiring to engage in some kind of self-indulgent, pseudo-ambient exercise.
Fortunately these tracks are in the minority on this album and fail to mar the CD to any great extent. SFA classics abound, from the moody, epic opener Zoom! to the brilliant vocal melody of Psyclone! (perhaps the lesser tracks would be transfigured into something more interesting if they also had exclamation points affixed to their names), proving that the band has not lost their capacity to produce innovative melodies studded with catchy pop hooks.
Were it not for its misguided notion of what constitutes maturity LK would rank amongst the band's best; as it is, it's still an excellent album filled with topnotch songwriting and great performances. The album proves that self-restraint is not a virtue when it comes to the SFA, as they're at their best when they simply allow all their creativity and energy to run rampant over the course of an album. All the same, even the weaker moments are inoffensive, merely frustrating filler lodged between brilliant tracks, but if abstaining from what they do best is their definition of 'maturity,' then I'll opt for childish regression any day.
While hardly a misfire, Love Kraft was still something of a disappointment, easily the Super Furry Animals's weakest outing (that it was still an excellent album is a testament to the caliber of the group); one contributing factor to this qualitative inequality was the band's misguided conception that they needed to grow more mature, a preposterous notion that was antithetical to not only to the psychedelic pop collective's method of songwriting but to the band's very identity itself.
Thus one would assume that Hey Venus!, an album that's a decided improvement over its predecessor, would eschew this counterproductive forced progression in favor of the group's charming immaturity, bereft of attempts to assume a more serious tone; surprisingly, however, this is not the case, as rather than abort this creative direction the Super Furry Animals merely implemented it with more intelligence and precision, careful to ensure that their newfound maturity doesn't compromise the more traditional, colorful insanity from whence the group derives its idiosyncratic identity.
While admittedly I'm vilifying the band's aspirations toward maturity, it's not as though I mind a less serious group attempting to make a profound artistic statement, it's simply that this equation isn't quite the group's forte. Serious overtones have never been conducive toward the Super Furry Animals' success, while their attempts at maturity weren't even intended to amount to meaningful epiphanies or insightful revelations, merely orchestrated to dilute the group's cartoonish nature at times, as if their slighter nature was something to be ashamed of. I, a vocal proponent of rock outfits like They Might Be Giants, Ween and The Flaming Lips, vehemently disagree with the assertion that there's anything wrong or embarrassing about producing harmless catchy, eccentric fare, and if the Super Furry Animals do feel compelled to compensate for their less serious stature then they're far better off with innovative experiments like the brilliant Slow Life than simply producing bland, desultory and enervated tracks that no amount of maturity could ever redeem or justify. The numbers on Love Kraft that conform to this mold simply drag, never going anywhere meaningful or saying anything of importance. They don't even work on an emotional level, as less 'mature' songs like Demons, The Turning Tide and Something Comes From Nothing are far more potent than any 'serious' track on Love Kraft.
Thus while still obstinately clutching to their bid at maturity, the band at least has the sense to compartmentalize this facet of themselves, and some of these more 'mature' songs even prove to be far more successful than their counterparts on the group's previous endeavor.
The closer Let The Wolves Howl At The Moon, for example, is far more effective than the coma-inducing banality it's been unjustly branded as, and is in fact indicative of a greater understanding of the fundamentals of 'mature' songwriting than had ever been exhibited on their previous outing. It may lack the group's cheerful mania but it actually feels as if it has more of a purpose than proving that the Super Furry Animals are capable of penning a serious song.
Thus the album is never sabotaged by the unadvisable ambitions of the band; one competent track won't magically transfigure them into a serious rock band, but then again that was never the goal; rather it simply demonstrates that the group had gained a higher understanding of their own musical limitations.
While superior mature fare is certainly a cause for celebration, the album's main strengths, needless to say, come from their customarily eccentric content. The Gateway Song may be less than a minute but it's still an appropriate way to begin the album, while Run-Away and Show Your Hand are stellar sing-along pop songs. The Gift That Keeps On Giving is a slower tune but no less catchy, while the adrenaline rush of Neo Consumer sets the album on a more explosive track again. Into The Night is a brilliant number, Baby Ate My Eightball is repetitive yet completely infectious, Carbon Dating is another keeper, Suckers! is a cynically hilarious anthem and Battersea Odyssey boasts yet another memorable melody.
This all culminates with the aforementioned Let The Wolves Howl At The Moon, which somehow, while by no means a natural extension of what preceded it still feels like the perfect note to end the album on.
Thus Hey Venus! is a great album, and a triumphant return to form after the very good yet flawed Love Kraft. The group is back to making music because it's entertaining rather than because it's mature, and this approach suits a band like the Super Furry Animals; this isn't meant to deride the band or belittle their range and potential, it's simply that in the realm of rock music being an extremely fun, catchy and colorful band is no less an accomplishment than being a deadly serious, mature rock outfit. The Super Furry Animals, having found their niche so early in their careers, were naturally searching for ways to branch out, and in time they very well might, but for the time being there's absolutely no shame in doing what they do best, even if it's what they've been doing since the beginning of their careers.
Few contemporary rock outfits have established as unique and distinctive a musical identity as the Super Furry Animals, a group whose artistic persona is so idiosyncratic and charmingly eccentric that even a lackluster song sounds compelling when run through the band's sonic filter.
Fortunately, another factor that differentiates the band from the myriad lesser acts that over-saturate the modern music scene is their proficiency in the songwriting department, as the Super Furry Animals excel to the point that they seldom need to rely on their inviting personalities to produce worthwhile content.
Dark Days/Light Years does not disappoint in this respect, as the band have fashioned yet another modern musical masterpiece. In the current rock climate the best that one can reasonably hope for is a decent collection of hooks or engrossing gimmicks in a familiar context, be it the catchy melodies offered through retro rock of The Strokes or the epic stature of the neo-prog anthems of The Mars Volta, two groups who thrive on recycling the best characteristics of yesteryear without doing enough to distinguish themselves as creatively independent ensembles.
The Super Furry Animals eschew this derivative approach, producing songs that truly could not have been created by any other rock band. Tracks like the infectious Mt. truly sound unique, as they're neither products of their times nor do they owe a considerable debt to what's come before. Boasting an original, hyper-catchy melody and a creative arrangement, Mt. is simply an aural delight, a song that defies classification, and even the most avid rock historian would have difficulty assembling a family tree to determine the musical heritage of that extraordinary number.
This isn't to say that the Super Furry Animals never display their influences; the psycho jam Crazy Naked Girls is a veritable melting pot of rock modalities, drawing on everything from psychedelia to progressive rock to hard rock, but in the end the band manage to truly make the song their own, assimilating these disparate musical forms to generate a song that transcends its inspirations and is most assuredly more than the sum of its parts.
While each track on Dark Days/Light Years is firmly entrenched in the Super Furry Animals' signature style this doesn't impede the group in the diversity department. From flirtations with moody rock (Inconvenience) to forays into the realm of bubblegum pop (Moped Eyes), the band do everything in their power to keep the album varied and stave off any potential monotony or stagnation.
Every song has something unique to offer, and there's little in the way of missteps or misfires. Admittedly the album isn't without its blemishes; Cardiff In The Sun is needlessly protracted, and while it's certainly pretty there's a constant, palpable threat that the song will degenerate into sheer blandness, a problem that's exacerbated by the track's willful resistance to play to the band's strengths.
Elsewhere Pric is an otherwise solid number marred by its obstinate refusal to end, subjecting the listener to minutes worth of unrewarding, completely superfluous sound effects that don't even lead to any kind of meaningful or even remotely satisfying conclusion.
Nevertheless Dark Days/Light Years is still a highly consistent affair, offering an array of superb compositions, from the irresistible pop of Helium Hearts to the edgy rocker White Socks/Flip Flops to the nearly exotic The Very Best Of Neil Diamond. Tracks like the energetic pop rocker Inaugural Trams are quintessential Super Furry Animals without coming across as rehashes, while Where Do You Wanna Go? is old-fashioned without feeling dated.
Thus Dark Days/Light Years is yet another superb outing from one of the top groups on the contemporary rock scene. In this era it's a daunting task to truly stand out amidst the waves of me-too rock acts, but the Super Furry Animals have managed this feat, and with each new entry in their canon they further cement themselves as a creative and unique ensemble.