Friday, August 24, 2007

Soy Super Bien!

Super Furry Animals - Hey Venus!

It’s perhaps understandable that Super Furry Animals have recently diminished in status from national treasure to a dependable band rather taken for granted. This has much to do with the rather assuming nature of their previous two albums, particularly 2005’s ‘Love Kraft’. A collaboration between SFA and Beastie Boys producer Mario Caldato Jr., ‘Love Kraft’ should have been inspired. Unfortunately, the result sounded like an album made under the influence of too many depressive substances – occasionally enlightened (‘Zoom’, ‘Laser Beam’ and ‘Cyclone’ are among their best songs) but mostly hazy, slothful and lacking in energy. All bands have to undergo an inevitable maturing process but in this case the gonzo spirit that informed the first three SFA albums seemed to have been surgically removed rather than merely tempered. It was the first SFA album that couldn’t even begin to match the exuberant qualities of Pete Fowler’s artwork.

‘Hey Venus!’ goes some distance in restoring that enthusiasm and restless creativity and it makes for a much more satisfying record as a result. The album’s concept about a runaway girl might well be a loose afterthought, but the sound (now controlled by Broken Social Scene’s remarkable engineer Dave Newfeld) is coherent and intelligent. ‘Hey Venus!’ at last sees SFA make inventive use of the studio again.

It also restores the maverick sense of humour that ‘Love Kraft’ transparently lacked. The opening ‘Gateway Song’ lasts a mere 45 seconds, neatly presaging the fun and games that follow, with Gruff Rhys boasting that ‘it brings us up nicely to the harder stuff and once you get hooked, you can’t get enough’. The Phil Spector-esque ‘Run-Away’ begins with a rather wonderful piece of spoken explanation – ‘this next song is based on a true story, which would be fine if it wasn’t autobiographical!’ He sounds rather like a Welsh Jarvis Cocker at this point and indeed ‘Run-Away’ would have fitted rather neatly on Jarvis’ recent solo album. ‘Hey Venus!’ also benefits from some spectacularly silly song titles – ‘Carbon Dating’, ‘Battersea Odyssey’, ‘Baby Ate My Eightball’ – the group clearly haven’t lost their delirious love of wordplay.

There’s still a lingering sense of disappointment in the fact that the band have settled for emphasising their more conservative 60s and 70s psychedelic influences over the rush of lo-fi magic that made ‘Mwng’ so captivating, or the experiments with techno and electronica that permeated ‘Rings Around The World’ and ‘Guerilla’. ‘Show Your Hand’, the album’s first single, whilst undeniably pretty, is really nothing more than you’d expect from a band with a barely restrained infatuation with ‘Surf’s Up’-era Beach Boys. There was a time when SFA seemed to have no care whatsoever for categorisation or the expectations of their audience, successfully challenging people to embrace whatever they had to offer. Nowadays, they seem to have settled into some kind of quirky pop-meets soft rock bracket.

The positive response to this is that the band has blessed ‘Hey Venus!’ with some genuinely memorable tunes (the delicate doo-wop of ‘Carbon Dating’, the brass laden stomp of ‘Battersea Odyssey’ or the ELO-esque harmonies of ‘The Gift That Keeps Giving’). There are some moments when the band’s masterful synthesis of old and new shines through with real clarity (the deliciously funky ‘Into The Night’ or the enjoyable ‘Neo Consumer’) Even the more lightweight moments come with a tremendous sense of fun (the fuzzy disco of ‘Baby Ate My Eightball’). It’s also worth recognising that ‘Hey Venus!’ is SFA’s eighth album proper, which is quite an achievement in itself. Kindred spirits The Boo Radleys sadly couldn’t manage that kind of longevity, unfairly maligned as they now are. ‘Hey Venus!’ doesn’t exactly break any new ground for SFA and, at just 36 minutes, many may feel a little short changed on duration. Let’s not take them for granted though, eh?

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