Monday, 2 March 2009

Super Furry Animals "Rings Around The World" (2001) (News, Views and Music 23)

“I’m glowing radioactive, we draw beams around the world, wish you could see us when we’re at our best now we draw rings around the world”

Super Furry Animals “Rings Around The World” (2001)

I fully realise that for most of you fellow 60s and 70s fanatics the only thing ‘super furry animals’ will mean to you is the ones that lived in a cave and grooved with a pict in a certain Pink Floyd song. Unbelievably, most Super Furry songs get even weirder than that hodge-podge collage – but in a far more lovable eccentric way. The 1990s’ re-incarnation Beach Boys to Oasis’ 90s Beatles, this group share the same off-the-wall mix of the nostalgic-for-all-things-gone and wonder at all-the-future-things-possible that Brian Wilson’s mob had (we even get an updated surfer/ skateboarder song, ‘Sidewalk Surfer Girl’). Oh yes and this band is also Welsh, the only thing that most mainstream reviewers of this band ever seem to acknowledge (some of their songs are sung in Welsh too – I think I’m right in saying that they are the only non-male voice choir to have had a Welsh language song break into the top 100 charts).

‘Rings Around The World’ seems to have become something of a benchmark of Furry releases – not that any of them made that much of a splash with the general public, not by Oasis standards anyway – which is strange. Not because it’s probably my favourite Furries album (even my tastes can’t be that weird – no hang on a minute, they are) but because its also one of their most bizarre and heavy going, in places at least. Just as with Smile-era Beach Boys, its hard to tell where one song ends another begins, with even more songs being hi-jacked and taken off into instrumental-sound effects land than normal, even when the codas and finales have little to do with the song that preceded them – but don’t let that put you off. This very Furries mix of bookmarking a good tune and witty words with something deliberately designed to kill off all chances of airplay is a very winning combination and works better on this album than most. Except on ‘Receptacle for the Respectable’ anyway, which simply sabotages a highly promising song with some weird effects. Very Beach Boys.

While the Furries’ earlier albums like ‘Radiator’ and ‘Fuzzy Logic’ had set out their template of good tunes, great harmonies and eccentric humour, ‘Rings Around The World’ is the first of a long run to have that very keyboard-based ‘modern’ feel running all the way through them and the first to work as a mood piece that’s more than the sum of it’s parts. The Furries ape several different styles generally successfully on their earlier albums (for example, the U2-ish ‘Demons’ outdoes anything that drippiest of bands could hope to achieve; ‘Bad Behaviour’ is classic Stones-ish rock and roll and the power ballad ‘Fire In My Heart’ just about manages to tightrope walk genuine emotion and a knowing wink of how daft such sentiments are), but ‘Rings Around The World’ doesn’t stray far from the very Furries-ish style of writing.

 The highlights here are several – although there are a few tracks that don’t work along the way. The aforementioned ‘Sidewalk Surfer Girl’ is a classic symphony-in-miniature of the sort Brian Wilson used to thrive on. The song starts off as a traditional ballad before the heaviest guitar riff of the past decade cuts in to knock the rug from under our feet and knocks the girl of the title of her skateboard. Just as we prepare ourselves for a noise-fest the song reverts to classic catchy pop song writing in the chorus, with a memorable riff that switches easily between the two strands. Gruff Rhys’ vocals are – as on so many Furries records – badly buried in the mix so that its hard to hear what the lyrics are – but their unexpected tale of a Rip Van Winkle-like dozing narrator waking up after 15 years to find the world changed are the perfect match for this uneasy what-the-hell’s-going-on soundtrack. Listen out too for the way that the chorus’ traditional serenade of love (‘I’d do anything to be with you’) is undercut by the sudden switch to paranoia (‘…Sometimes…’). Surely the narrator has been asleep since the 60s, though, not just 1986 (15 years before this song’s release), given the poppy chorus, psychedelic sound effects and the allusion to things being updated but not actually changing (hence the title character is a ‘sidewalk surfer’ not a ‘skater’).

‘No Sympathy’ and it’s mini-instrumental predecessor ‘Miniature’ show off the more epic side of the Furries’ nature. While the latter is a pure Beach Boys 20/20 era-doodle, the latter sounds like an outtake from the Rolling Stones’ ‘Between The Buttons’ LP (and unlike most reviewers, I use that description as a compliment – hence the fact that it’s no 9 on our list!) The very lush and warm harmonies and the gradual build-up of the melody suggests that we’re going to get a very pretty ballad. But a scan of the lyrics reveals no such luck – ‘I have no empathy for you, you make me realise who I am not, you deserve to die!’ Like the Beach Boys, again, our innocent and tender world has suddenly been disrupted, only for the Furries to kick back in with a memorable three-part harmony ba-da-da-da-da-da-da-dahhh riff as if nothing has happened. Alas the coda of this song can’t compete with the rest of the song (the band have fun with synthesiser sound effects and disrupt most of the mood they’ve worked so hard to build up over the past few minutes), but somehow playing around with our mood and our expectations seems to fit this edgy unexpected song too (three minutes of noise is pushing it though – even the Beach Boys couldn’t get away with that!)

‘Presidential Suite’ has one of the loveliest brassy accompaniments this side of ‘Pet Sounds’, yet its lyrics are a sarcastic dig at how politician’s lives often get in the way of their best work. For the benefit of our younger readers who only seem to remember Dubya George in power (poor things!), this song dates from the time of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, one which has been all but brushed under the carpet now in these pro-democrats, what-the-hell-were-the-republicans-thinking days post-Obama (get ready for a change of mood back again in about 2011), plus some digs at Boris Yeltsin along the way. However, its not angry at politicians so much as the media coverage, trying to give the subjects of the song their stately feel back and trying to give the song a regal, majestical feel – even though the song is made up of gossip and rumour, implying that on such a base, ever-changing platform are our opinions of people in the public made. The moving personal interjection ‘when I look over my shoulder I can’t see my past’ makes it clear that this song is about how short a time-span we all have to make our mark in life and how costly it is when we get obsessed with trivial detail over the bigger picture (not when it comes to music, though – hence the 1010 detailed reviews on this site…)  The Furries, of course, have shunned publicity for the most part, a course that never brings rock stars riches but does bring them a certain respect that media-grabbing stars like U2 will never achieve, so perhaps this song is something of a dig at celebrities as well as presidents.

The highlight of the record for me, though, is the lopsided running-at-the-wrong-speed ballad ‘Run Christian Run’. I haven’t got a clue what this song is about (Christian missionaries failed in their missions and returning back to the Western world as a memory for her fallen grace perhaps, or maybe I’ve just been on the wine gums again) but the way the twinkly synthesiser riff clashes with the mournful pedal steel only to get enveloped by a warm harmony hug brings a tear to the eye. Perhaps its because we know we shouldn’t have sympathy with the Christians of the title – ‘dreaming of the perfect home by the sun’ does indeed pull at the heart strings with its images of nostalgia, but if this line is meant to imply their biggest motive behind their work then it doesn’t make them come out of it at all well. The song quickly develops into an epic with an extended coda, building on the song’s riffs in true Pink Floyd style until it sounds a hundred foot tall. Curious ending though, with the song fading away until we’re left with a synthesiser lick which then suddenly ends mid-note – was this song intended to fade out originally but the band liked what they heard? Either way, it makes for a frustratingly anti-climatic end to a song that still ight well be the classic of the LP (or CD I should say. Help, I’m not used to writing reviews for albums this up-to-date!)

Talking of anti-climatic ends, I’m not too keen on closer ‘Fragile Happiness’ at all. A slow blues dirge without the imagination of the other songs on the album, it’s yet another in a long tradition of closing Furry albums with the least likely songs of all (‘Fuzzy logic’ has a similar trick of placing the majestic mournful ballad and obvious closer ‘Long Gone’ before the ‘filler’ track ‘For Now And Ever’). The harmonies, too, are what bands like the Spice Girls do when they think they’re being ‘60s’ and ‘hip’ – an empty-headed doo-doo-wahhh’ is no substitute for any genuine period harmony, even if the band have just got away with singing ‘ba-da-da-da-da-da-da-dahhh’ earlier in the record.

I can’t say I’m a fan of the title track either, despite it’s status as a latter-day Furries classic with most fans. There’s a great bass-guitar groove going on in the opening, but more of the dreaded synthesiser effects and a rather poor and rather poorly-heard vocal from Gruff Rhys mean the deliberately overdone egotistical lyric falls a bit flat. There’s a great pop hook going on here (‘Ring ring! Ring ring! Rings around the world!’), but uncharacteristically the band spoil it by featuring a ringing telephone a and conversation over the coda which is just a bit too heavy-handed to work successfully.

‘It’s Not The End Of the World’ is another track that’s a bit too Furry in numbers, even if Gruff actually does a great job of the vocal here, showing off his wide vocal range. The sleepwalking melody is a little too self-aware to work as well as the other songs on this album without the by-now expected Furries twist to disrupt them, the lyrics are seemingly deliberately poor (‘turn all the hate in the world into a mocking bird and watch it fly away!’) and the use of strings make the whole thing sound like the bend like they are selling out. Well, it’s only for one track – most bands I could name made a career out of doing songs like this (such as the one that seems to be everywhere again this month after a long hiatus – would you believe, U2 happened to be on four different channels at the same time yesterday!), but given the wit and inventiveness of the rest of the album, it’s a shame that tracks like this one have to exist (and its even more of a shame that this track made it to the ‘Songbook’ single collection, but then again it is obvious singles material – too obvious you could say).

I also have to mention ‘Receptacle For The Respectable’ again, but I’m at a loss as to whether to add this to the ‘highlights’ or the ‘lowlights’ section. The main part of the song is sound – so good, in fact, that it’s a strong candidate for the best melodyline here. The pun in the title and cute Merseybeat-harmonies are fun too. But the whole mood is disrupted, first by an ugly middle eight that comes out of nowhere and slows the whole song to a crawl and secondly by the coda which sounds like an electronically-treated version of Brian Blessed bawling out the title while taken over by evil alien robots. Usually I make up for lapses in taste like this by adding , ‘well it was 1967’ or something like that, but this time I’m at a loss. Why guys, why?!?

Even so, it’s that unexpectedness and refusal to go where you expect that makes this album one of the most remarkable of the decade so far and it’s this willing to experiment without straying too far from the listenability path that allows me to recommend this album to you readers who are most likely to be 60s and 70s fans. Just as on follow-up record ‘Phantom Power’ (which is too patchy to compete with this album, but has perhaps the band’s two greatest pieces, the atmospheric ‘Piccolo Snare’ and the very Brian Wilson-ish instrumental ‘Father Oh Father’), the Super Furries have created a memorable update of classic sounds for a modern audience. If only there were more bands around like them but ah well, never mind, what with Oasis and Belle and Sebastian the 1990s actually managed to spurn three ongoing classic rock groups! (that’s two more than the 1980s ever managed!) Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫♫♫♫♫ (8/10).

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