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When Super Furry Animals introduced shards of funky drum ‘n’ bass into their folk-rock and guitar-pop ditties for 1999’s Guerilla, they beat Thom Yorke out of the IDM-meets-rock-classicism gates by more than a year. And they did it in a way that produced something not nearly so grave or self-conscious as the overhyped and overpraised Kid A. Which is hardly surprising, given the Super Furries’ techno roots and long-held reputation as wacky Welsh pranksters, musical and otherwise. This is the band, after all, that once owned a fully functional tank, which it painted purple, drove around to a few outdoor festivals, and subsequently sold—to Don Henley.
It’s also no great shock that the disc, stellar as it was, failed to attract much of an American audience. Like every SFA album since 1996’s Fuzzy Logic, Guerilla made mere eclecticism seem quaint, roaming around the lands of psychedelia, bell-bottom stadium rock, soul, earnest soft rock, and skittering electronica with ease. Sure, putting the Soft Machine next to Slade next to Marvin Gaye next to Bread next to Aphex Twin might seem at first glance more irreverent than relevant, but how’s this for postpostmodern significance: The Super Furries were the expert remixers who cut up the Beatles for last year’s Tate Liverpool exhibition “About Collage,” at the personal request of Sir Paul himself.
On the new Rings Around the World, the Cardiff-based band turns in mixes that range from soaring “Long and Winding Road”-style orchestrations to up-to-the-minute digital mutations. The disc is a multiformat monster, the first album to be simultaneously issued as both a CD and a 5.1 Surround Sound DVD; the latter version includes specially commissioned films for each of its 13 core songs, plus 16 remixes, by Kid606, the High Llamas, and others, as well as videos for five outtakes. The videos, directed by the likes of the Dogma Collective and various young Celtic artists, tend to be low-budget, funny, and ominous minimovies (the piece for “Run! Christian, Run!” features scrolling text from a doomsday-cult Web site) or what animators call “transitionals,” the meaningless journeys of little creatures from left to right.
Ultimately, however, Rings’ real magic is in its songs, thoughtful, slyly witty tunes framed within the traditional songwriting structures of rock, folk, and soul. Some of the album’s best tracks don’t need much more than singer Gruff Rhys and an acoustic guitar. And despite the loads of wild and weird noises that appear elsewhere, the techno trappings are often applied so tongue-in-cheekly that they hardly seem meant to get anyone on the dance floor or to headphone nirvana. On “Sidewalk Serfer Girl,” for example, the band positively geeks out in laying on the gimmickry: aggressively toying with the audio plug-ins on every instrument until it’s nearly annoying, slipping in skittery breakdowns, and messing around with Rhys’ vocals. It’s almost appropriate given the song’s off-the-wall lyrics, which concern a generation gap between a young extreme-sports babe and our smitten lead singer, whom she finds “a major yawn.” More subtle is the treatment of title track “(Drawing) Rings Around the World,” a Status Quo-style boogie rocker that gets tooled up with synth bass lines and ends in a deluge of random cell-phone conversations.
Rings has something in common with the Beach Boys’ 1971 Surf’s Up album in its vaguely environmental thematics and fuzzy-logic’d look at the state of the world. Rings was inspired by the unlikely beauty of mushroom clouds; our ever-shrinking, increasingly wired Earth; the layers of man-made radio waves that encircle the planet; or, well, none of the above. It’s all too common for hip bands to drop Brian Wilson’s name, but the Super Furries do the reference right, frequently fleshing out their alternate-reality narratives with shimmering Pet Sounds-esque orchestral arrangements. The submarining global-warming epic that opens the album, “Alternate Route to Vulcan Street,” is a note-perfect case in point, its low-key piano, gently psychedelic guitar, and processed-drum beats gilded with layer upon layer of lush strings.
There are string arrangements of a different kind on the Isaac Hayes/Marvin Gaye pastiche “Juxtapozed With U.” It’s silky R&B, subtly politicized, heavy on the orchestration and insinuated sex, and completely unlike anything the band has done before. Throughout Rings, Rhys remains an economic and impressionistic lyricist, and on “Juxtapozed,” he duets with his own vocoderized voice about “over priced unreal estate, surreal estate,” then gets silly-smooth, asking “Just suppose I juxtapoze with you?” before becoming anachronistically idealistic with a “You’ve got to tolerate all the people that you hate” refrain. This slow jam is probably the best thing on Rings for sheer audaciousness. Yeah, it’s a genre track, but it shimmers.
But the Super Furries reserve the true gold for the album’s ballads, soulful love notes and rustic folk ditties that provide compelling evidence the band might just be maturing. “Presidential Suite” is a Burt Bacharach-inspired tune, featuring fellow Welshman John Cale on piano and nifty strings arranged by the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan. It cleverly frames the Clinton-Lewinsky affair (“Monica and naughty Billy got together something silly”) and Boris Yeltsin’s reckless reign (“pass another vodka dear”) as two sides of ’90s decadence, even as it somehow ends up sweet (“you know that we belong in a presidential suite, armed guards in the street”). Despite the going-for-baroque instrumentation, the song is pulled off with a beautifully light touch. And it includes Rings’ most memorable line: “Honestly! Do we need to know if he really came inside her mouth?”
The acoustic-based “Run! Christian, Run!,” “Fragile Happiness,” and “No Sympathy” are less adorned and all the more beautiful for it. The first stretches a syncopated little keyboard theme and a countryfied verse into seven blissful minutes while Rhys explores the psychology of end-timers: “Leaving/Leaving behind all damnation/With women and children in line/The men will then gather behind/With knives to their throats/They’ll depart on the midnight train to Jordan.” The last is perhaps Rings’ folkiest track, a reminder of the band members’ alter egos as wandering Welsh minstrels that puts a dark spin on CSN&Y-ish acoustic strumming and vocal harmonies—especially during the downright scary techno breakdown that comes about five minutes in, after Rhys sings, “Sympathy, sympathy/You want some/Don’t come to me…/I don’t feel sorry for thee/You deserve to die.”
Not long ago, Iggy Pop observed the obvious divide between current American and British bands, noting that “[t]he Americans have got the bottom” but have lost the extrarhythmic top: “[T]here’s no wit, there’s no charm, there’s no lift.” Rings Around the World is ample proof that the Igster still knows a thing or two about pop: The Super Furries tease the dance-floor DJ in you here and there, but most of Rings is about rifling through your record collection for all the best elements and showing you what makes them worth listening to. In the SFA universe, techno and folk, tongue-in-cheek musings and pointed commentary, guitars and samplers coexist as unpeaceably as you could hope for. It’s a magical place. CP