Super Furry Animals
Songbook: The Singles, Vol. 1
Let’s give it up for Wales. As if Dylan Thomas, Bertrand Russell, and John Cale weren’t enough, the vowel-challenged British principality has seen fit to favor us with the Super Furry Animals, a maverick rock quintet that’s been making brilliantly silly, unexpectedly moving records since 1995. Although they’ve never achieved the critical or commercial success of fellow laptop-lovers Radiohead, the Super Furry Animals have made their mark in other ways: They bought a soccer team, recorded Paul McCartney eating celery, and, in 2000, were responsible for the only Welsh-language album ever to hit No. 11 on the British charts. More important, they’ve created an eclectic but consistently great body of work that combines cutting-edge experimentation, unabashed pop sensibilities, and absurdist humor. Imagine the Flaming Lips with better vocals (but equally silly costumes), or a less gloom-and-doom Radiohead, or the Beach Boys mashed up with Aphex Twin. Such comparisons don’t begin to describe the delirious pleasures proffered by the Super Furry Animals.
Songbook chronicles SFA’s decade-long career by cramming all 21 of the group’s U.K. singles on one disc. Hardcore fans might be disappointed by the absence of previously unreleased material, but they shouldn’t get too bent out of shape: The band has already recorded its next studio album, which is slated to appear in May. Besides, retrospectives such as this one are designed to entice new listeners, not to satisfy completists, and it’s hard to imagine that Songbook won’t succeed in this regard. After listening to it nonstop for a few months, neophytes will surely snag the original releases.
Picking out highlights from a CD of highlights is a fool’s task, but I’ll try anyway. There’s 1996’s “Something 4 the Weekend,” a blissful Brit-pop confection of pounding power chords, ELO-ish harmonies, and a bizarre, possibly apocryphal quotation from George Foreman. On “It’s Not the End of the World?” from 2001’s excellent Rings around the World, frontman Gruff Rhys croons sweetly while a string section soars overhead, lending an impossible poignancy to lines such as “Turn all the hate in the world into a mockingbird/Make it fly away.” The Welsh-language offerings “Ysbeidiau Heulog” and “Blerwytirhwng?” might look dismayingly unpronounceable on paper, but give them a couple of spins and you’ll soon be singing lines such as “Fe deimlon ni esgusion yn” like a native. From the sneaky little banjo figure that pops up amid the maelstrom of “Demons” to the cheerful calypso rhythms of “Northern Lites,” every track on Songbook is rife with tiny surprises. The big surprise, of course, is that the Super Furry Animals aren’t the biggest rock band in the world.
Who's Got Trouble?
Fronted by the improbably named Ambrosia Parsley, Shivaree inhabits a noir-ish enclave midway between the cabaret and the juke joint. Too rootsy for the freaks and too freaky for the roots fans, the trio of talented misfits seemed, until recently, destined for obscurity after their first two releases went nowhere. Then the band’s luck turned. With a boost from Quentin Tarantino, who used a track from the first album at the end of Kill Bill 2, the eccentric Californians got another chance to shine. Who’s Got Trouble?, their newest full-length, combines their trademark Southern-gothic atmospherics with twitchy funk, sultry jazz, and unapologetic Erik Satie lifts. Parsley’s little-girl warble sounds both sinister and innocent, and guest turns from downtown skronkmeisters Sex Mob and cello maven Jane Scarpantoni deepen the decadence without compromising the backwoods-shanty vibe. Here’s to second chances.