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Eight albums in, Super Furry Animals have been around long enough for reviews to start out by saying how long they've been around. When the Welsh psych-pop band first played the main stage at the UK's Reading Festival in 1996, the headliners were Black Grape, the Prodigy, and the Stone Roses in their catastrophic last performance, sans guitarist John Squire. Of those groups, only the Prodigy have put out new music in this millennium-- and even that was too much.
Wrongly pigeonholed at first as a Welsh Britpop band, the Super Furries have lived forever by comparison. They're still releasing albums at a steady clip while their erstwhile contemporaries have either fallen silent (Radiohead), gone on hiatus (Blur), turned to dogshit (Oasis), or gone on hiatus, turned to dogshit, and then reunited (the Verve). Including side projects, B-sides, and other extras, the SFA catalogue is sprawling but rewarding, topped only by Damon Albarn among UK artists from that earlier period (Jarvis Cocker isn't prolific enough). Not even devotees can hope to memorize every nuance. Some of the best bits are sung in Welsh!
Aside from the excellent singles compilation Songbook, which shows some of the band's breadth (if only some of their depth), the best place to start with the Super Furries has traditionally been their latest album. Hey Venus!, the band's worthwhile Rough Trade debut, doesn't quite measure up to that standard-- it has to contend with frontman Gruff Rhys' Pitchfork-recommended Candylion, which hit the U.S. in March. That record indulged Rhys' eccentricities within a basic, acoustic guitar-oriented setting; Hey Venus! broadens that instrumental palette for a set of a shiny (not necessarily happy) rock, pop, and country-rock songs that consolidate the band's pre-Love Kraft explorations. Broken Social Scene's David Newfeld is behind the album's clear-sounding production (as he was on the excellent EP by countryfolk Los Campesinos!), and the High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan again proves an immaculate string arranger.
First impressions of Hey Venus! may label it a retreat, but that isn't quite right. It's just that a group I've complimented for their sublime gimmickry focus more on songcraft here than stagecraft; as Rhys recently told Pitchfork, reports suggesting a "concept album" were greatly exaggerated. Spector-walled "Run-Away" does away with the previous album's "no more romantic comedies" brainstorm, to deviously swooning effect. The Zombies-esque orchestral pop of first single "Show Your Hand" and the falsetto-laden quiet storm of "The Gift That Keeps Giving" have more historical precedent than some SFA escapades, but they enchant even in such a broader context. Keyboardist Cian Ciarán might not bring as much of the techno influence he contributed to previous albums, except the electronic bleeps on explosively catchy "Into the Night" (which gives the album its title and features a Turkish electric saz) or punky "Neo Consumer". However, Ciaran's recent doowop obsession shows through on his majestic composition "Carbon Dating"-- almost on par with the still-bowling-me-over "Bowl Me Over", from Ciaran's Acid Casuals project.
The Furries can't only write beaming melodies, deck them out with sparkling instrumentation and harmonies, and not also have a little fun. Too many people seem to have wrongly assumed that because Love Kraft had gloomy cover art and slower songs it was dead serious. It wasn't, and neither is Hey Venus!. "Suckers!" lives up to its punctuation (a Welsh trend?) with anthemic acoustic guitar strums and fuzzed-out lead guitar fills like on Radiator's "Demons", plus hammer dulcimer and lyrics that give the almost-guiltily decadent arrangement the band's old Situationist bite: "Suckers playing stadiums, filling them to the rafters, singing power-ballad songs," goes this stadium-ready power ballad, but there's a sucker born every line. Guitarist Huw "Bunf" Bunford's "Battersea Odyssey" takes a whimsical, horn-fronted trip to inner city London. His ambulance-siren vocals on "Baby Ate My Eight Ball" help make up a track weird enough for any SFA album since 1996 debut Fuzzy Logic.
It's fair to say the songs lack the epic sweep of the last couple of albums, but there's still little about Hey Venus! to fault beyond the faint whiff of musical conservatism ("Hey, this almost reminds me of a niche-marketable Super Furry Animals!"). While the pun underlying quick-hit opener "Gateway Song" is dated, it remains relevant and lively: "It brings us up nicely to the harder stuff," Rhys brags. Finale "Let the Wolves Howl at the Moon" can't really add much to the Byrdsian twang SFA perfected on Rings Around the World's "Run! Christian, Run!", but its more compact, yearning lyrics also recall Belle and Sebastian's dazzling The Life Pursuit closer "Mornington Crescent".
Hey Venus! concludes on a disturbing note for an album by such a long-running band: "The end, it comes so soon," Rhys sings. On "Suckers!", though, he seems to clarify, "It's over, but we've just begun." Here's hoping for the latter. If the Super Furries can't keep coming along to baffle us a few times every couple of years, then the terrorists will have won. The headliners at this year's Reading and Leeds Festivals were Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Razorlight, so clearly, the Man don't give a fuck.
-Marc Hogan, September 04, 2007
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