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Super Furry Animals have never been minimalists, and the Cardiff quintet’s seventh proper album, Love Kraft, has it all—or very close to it all: rock, pop, soul, lounge, and electro; subtexts, digressions, and lyrics with the most elaborate backstories around; sound effects, a male/female duet, and Sean O’Hagan string and wind arrangements; samples of a buzzing Brazilian beetle and a 25-voice Catalan choir. Yet something’s missing. It could be urgency, or outrage, or “Y Gwybodusion.”
That’s one of the brisker songs on frontman Gruff Rhys’ recent solo album, Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, which is approximately the antithesis of Love Kraft: punchy, stripped-down, entirely in Welsh, and all Gruff all the time. (Translator’s note: Y gwybodusion means “the experts,” and yr atal genhedlaeth is “the stuttering generation.”) Rhys appears on the latest SFA album, too, of course, but not so much. Although the band members share songwriting credits communally, as they always have, the other musicians took larger compositional roles this time. This is reflected in the facts that three other Furries sometimes assume lead-vocal duties, and some of the lyrics are only one level deep. Keyboardist Cian Ciaran’s “Walk You Home,” for example, is apparently about walking her home, and guitarist Huw “Bunf” Bunford’s “Back on a Roll” seems to be about being back on the road: We’re an internationalist pan-Celtic postrock band. We’re coming to your town to help you party it down!
This time around, “pan-Celtic” only begins to tell the story. Wales is a small place with a limited audience and a wearisome climate; Welsh-language rock bands began traveling beyond its borders back in the ’60s. Not so much to England, where “Welsh rock” was only a term for resort-town hard candy until the Manic Street Preachers broke through in the early ’90s. Ireland and Brittany were more congenial, as Rhys recounts in his liner notes to Welsh Rare Beat, the new retrospective of material from the pioneering Welsh-lang label Sain. (The compilation is recommended to SFA fans, and even more to followers of countrymen Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.)
The Furries played Brittany before they even released their first album, and this time they’ve headed even further south, to Spain’s Catalonia—another region where the local language is under pressure from the capital’s culture. It’s a big world of small regions that resist linguistic hegemony, although it could be argued that the band’s constituency is made up less of minority-language activists than of record-collector obscurantists. Rumor has it that one influence on Love Kraft was Rotary Connection, and if you’ve never heard of that late-’60s psychedelic-soul band, you shouldn’t feel bad at all. Of course, in making this disc, the Furries were thinking of Love as much as love, and maybe also H.P. Lovecraft, another largely forgotten acid-era band.
The album opens with the splash of Bunford’s dive into a pool, an aural notice that this is SFA’s “summer” album. But then, the band has approached every long-player since its 1996 debut as its summer album, only to find its attempts at Beach Boys– style blitheness clouded by current events. (Phantom Power, the Furries’ previous album, took California sunshine pop as its model but the Iraq War as its subject.) Recorded mostly in Spain, co-produced by Beastie Boys lieutenant Mario Caldato Jr., and mixed in Brazil, Love Kraft should be SPF-30 pop. But the opening “Zoom!,” a multilayered, near-seven-minute epic that accomplishes everything the rest of this set intends, invokes aristocratic British murderer Lord Lucan—who also has a cameo in Salman Rushdie’s new novel—as well as Shergar, a racehorse that was rustled by the IRA. (Neither was ever found.) “Kiss me with Apocalypse,” the refrain implores.
Such pointed undertones are less common on this album than its predecessor, yet not entirely absent. Bunford recalls the day when “We vote her out/Nationwide screams and shouts” in “The Horn,” one of two songs here that modernize the sound of the post-touring-group Beatles. “Lazer Beam,” a funk-rocker that’s the disc’s sprightliest track, imagines a device that will eliminate “imperial colonial bastards.” Biotech, evolution, and global warming also make appearances, from “Ohio Heat” (reportedly the saga of a 19th-century Welsh-emigrant nun who committed suicide after becoming pregnant) to “Frequency” (“Polar bears/Molting as the ice caps meltdown”) to “Psyclone!” (which drops the title of “Sound of Thunder,” the Ray Bradbury short story that recently yielded a dreadful sci-fi flick). As always, Rhys’ playfully surrealistic lyrics reflect a basic lack of respect for English; it ain’t his language, after all. Sometimes his silliness isn’t contagious, though, and on this CD, whole verses—usually not written by Rhys—fall flat. “Back on a Roll” even half-rhymes its title phrase with “Records gone gold” and “Get on with the show.”
As might be expected of an album on which the Other Guys step forward, Love Kraft is more attuned to texture than meaning. Sometimes that’s just fine, and several of these songs harness the band’s frantic eclecticism more effectively than ever before. Rather than include a token hard-rocker like Phantom Power’s “Out of Control,” the band just injects the occasional arena-rock guitar solo—most notably into the gently cooing “Atomik Lust,” just before drummer Dafydd Ieuan suggests, “Let’s get our shit together.” The three-part “Cloudberries” is so lovely that it hardly matters that it’s all froth, or that the 25-voice choir on Part 3 might be overkill. But whatever it is that the Furries like about the Joe Meek– meets– the Muppets instrumental “Oi Frango” should have been incorporated into a real song—or banished to Bonustrackville. And Ciaran’s lounge-piano ripplings, especially during the intro to the album-ending “Cabin Fever,” are every bit as tired as the pop-punk the band has unofficially renounced.
Given the shift in songwriting strategy, Love Kraft could have been the band’s undoing. Instead, it’s a pretty good SFA album, just a little shallower in concept, this thinness not entirely balanced by the increased density of the arrangements. Though snippets of Romance languages can be heard, the album doesn’t seem to have absorbed much of Barcelona or Rio’s warmth. In fact, the thing is downright autumnal, luxuriating in string-swaddled regret. “Lazer Beam” and “Ohio Heat” will do for now, but Super Furry Animals still owe us that long-promised summer album.CP