By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
The Welsh are 50 times more mysterious than even the Scottish in their use of ancient language and knowledge of elfin lore (just kiddingI actually don't know shit about the Welsh), and I can't step out my front door these days without being bombarded by Welsh supergroup and self-described "enigmatic panda team" Super Furry Animals. On TV and in the magazines, nothing but nonstop coverage of Gruff, Dafydd, Huw, Guto, and Cian and their various doings . . . wait, I'm thinking of U2. And uggh, I hate U2! Maybe SFA haven't donated a billion dollars to the UN like Bono has (or was that Tina Turner?) or pushed legislation that would ban the electric spanking of war babies, but still. Not only would I take SFA's premise that people are barmy, naff, and loony over U2's thesis that people are lost and need saving any day of the week, but SFA's latest, Rings Around the World, runs rings around any yahoomanist hoo-hah that U2 could poop out of their blarney-filled butts.
It also beats just about any recent pop or rock release that this great lame-ass country of ours has to offer. On my worst days, I think that if it weren't for Timbaland we'd be France. And Rings Around the Worldoften suggests a possible collaboration between Timbaland and Brian Wilson. But hey, don't puke! What I mean is, SFA uses 21st-century tools to achieve pop timelessness. Here and abroad, it seems, bands strive to emulate Wilson's beach-baby tiny-toon brand of curdled naïveté and/or lush and dopey bombast via strings and banjos, but they never make the end result mean anywhere near as much as the source. (As much as I dug the last two Mercury Rev albums, I nonetheless realized that theyand the Flaming Lips and a gazillion otherswere simply trying to idealize and perfect a long-gone genre of melancholy echo-chamber wooziness. They came up with the best Beau Brummels albums ever, but nothing that contributed to the here-and-nowness of life on earth. Which is fine, because, just as with baroque music recitals, bluegrass, and garage rock, I'm all for beauty and keeping flames lit.) The point: Brian Wilson (using the Crystals as a launching pad) tried to create something new and bigger than himself. And so do SFA.
For instance: Try and track down the version of '97's Radiatoron Flydaddy that comes with an extra disc of early singles and Welsh rarebits sung in the mother tongue. You'll get the full effect of SFA's nascent Viagra folk, Red Bull punk, warped Brit-pop, and blissed-out space truckin' in one not-so-tidy package. The psychedelic parts are elastic and frazzled rainy-day-on-the-summer-shed-tour spasms of acid-drool. Yet peppy! As for the pop sounds' inverted buzzkillsall awkward arms and legs jostling for attention and balancethe Soup Dragons they ain't.
And do I even need to mention the conceptual madness of SFA? The elaborate packaging and '60s-era goofball anti-globochem shaggy-dog ethos? Maybe I do. On the vinyl release of Rings, side three starts at the end of the record and ends at the start, and the thing also comes with a bonus single with no music on it. Very Moby Grape. And the album has been simultaneously released with a DVD that includes videos for every song as well as remixes and other vid-geek tricks. The clips, for the most part, are hallucinogen-ready and quite lovelylotsa purty colors and not-too-sledgehammery messages about nuclear destruction and the supremacy of druids. Coulda done without the one made by webheads that misuses the best song on the album by throwing out anti-Christian fun facts in a manner that makes black-bloc tactics look subtle; it's just kinda sophomoric, and not in a good way. The thing as a whole, though, is engulfed in flames with groovy glowing crosses pulsing in the background. So all is not lost.
The two groups that SFA bring to mind most are Public Enemy and 10cc. Lyrically and harmony-wise, over and over again, whether consciously or not, these guys hit the same delirious notes that 10cc once hit: "I'm Not in Love," "Silly Love," and "Wall Street Shuffle" could be SFA B sides in a minute given some techno tinkering. The two bands share a good-natured pessimism, not to mention an oblique poetry that is both surreal and homely. And PE, like SFA, had an immediacy and sense of purpose that gave their best work an electric glow that grew brighter with every step they took toward a future-world that always seemed just beyond their grasp. All three groups likewise combine fear and loathing of big biz and gov't with sonic brilliance and tricky, shifting time signatures. Occasional incomprehensibility, too. And most importantly, an over-abundance of ideas and creativity that sometimes gets the better of them.
SFA's earlier records suffer a bit from this. They would try to cram as much noise, invention, chatter, and forward motion as they could into every song. Their hurry-up-Harry bumrush and Blur-ry beersoaked/x-tabbed music-hall tirades could be exhausting. Having said that, the best moments from their back catalog would make a helluva compone that would make you wonder why you subjected yourself to the last 15 Robyn Hitchcock albums when you could have been having fun instead.
On Rings Around the World, the urge to bulldoze is absent. Every moment seems to fit seamlessly into the next, whether transforming from a moody buzz or into a controlled chaos that never loses the plot. There is insane craft and skill on display here that I long ago forgot about and stopped expecting from bands with funny names and crazy album covers. (The Moldy Peaches have their charms, but 10 years from now, guess whose album will be festering in the box with Jose Jimenez and Karen Finley.)
There is nothing sexier than music so bold and confident in its silliness, so willing to leap off the moon. "Sidewalk Serfer Girl," "Juxtaposed With U," and "Run! Christian, Run!," especially, are future-rock not ahead of its time, but of it. This is new wave music happening right now in front of you that has nothing to do with Depeche Mode. It could be that bedhead nation continues to follow Radiohead's lead and set the snooze button for the heart of the womb; never mind that there are so many planets left to explore. (My own message to indie-mope miniaturists? Put your pants on! Do better drugs! Stop looking over your shoulder! Think big! Dare to dream!) SFA, for their part, know that the universe is vast. The only thing that can hold them down is gravity.