Friday, April 17, 2009

Reviews: Super Furry Animals + Camera Obscura

Super Furry Animals
Dark Days/Light Years
(Rough Trade)

(words: milo)

Getting started on this, I feel like some buzzcut recruit in muddy fatigues skinning potatoes in a indeterminately dim mess hall kitchen – where more and more potatoes keep getting dumped down on me from some ominous chute above me – each with a unique contour of bumps and eyes, some of them purple, some of them green, some of them glowing – and the potatoes just keep dumping down. At this point particularly, after ten albums and a handful of compilations, b-sides and side projects, it’s become increasingly difficult to document the veritable sprawl of the band’s sound, at least by any definitive edges.

Countless catch-up screeds have splurged on about these Welshmen’s origins rising up in the dying days of indie/brit-pop-revivalism in the mid 1990’s and their steady output since, distinguishing them from that scene and placing them more into either the Beach Boys-reverent sunny-surf and harmony-heavy pop, or the weird wavy nebula of psyche-rock. They’re not entirely musical chameleons – yet since 1999’s breakthrough Guerilla, they’ve dabbled in glam, folk, disco, space-rock, and on their latest Dark Days/Light Years particularly heavy on the krautrock – well, it starts to enter Bowie-like territory of elusive categorization. This leads to a healthy bit of stretching for the listener – because while you cannot say that any Super Furry Animals song sounds distinctively like a certain specific influence or genre, you also cannot say that any Super Furry Animals album sounds distinctively like any previous Super Furry Animals album.

Through the 00’s, they’ve been quite industrious – at almost an album-a-year pace. But 07-08 saw an increase in side-project work, which slowed things down a bit, but not for long. If the band’s known for anything, it’s dreamy melodies, fuzzy guitar streams, sideways space rock and bent-but-comforting take on sunny 60’s pop – captured most efficiently, in terms of a front-to-back strength, on 99’s Guerilla. Rings Around The World may be the quintessential weird glowing-potato-schizophrenia manifesto, to sum up the band’s capricious tastes (doo-wop, punk rock, space-rock, disco, even some piano-pounding crooner stuff). Since then, their albums have hovered just a few clicks above hit or miss – offering some brilliant moments muddled by airier, awkward or just underwhelming material. Not to fall into some latest-release-review-cliché, but I think (or, at least, let’s hope that…) Dark Days/Light Years is their return to form; that form being not only a comfortable, confident schizophrenia but an ability to piece together a captivating album from open to close.

If you’re mind, soul and ears are ready for a trek, Dark Days spans the usual (vast) terrain preferred by SFA, fuzzy guitars, wispy yowl vocals, subtle synth fluttering, and some nice brass and string accoutrements; but the recurring flavor is krautrock and fringe new wave. The stormy fuzzed wave of “Inconvenience” recalls Faust’s reverence for driving rhythms; “Inaugeral Trams” with its cockeyed squeaky synths and bubbly bounce and robotic vocal effects sounds like a game of mental pong between the pop sensibilities Gary Numan and Paul McCartney. “Cardiff In The Sun” in its 8-minute-glory, recalls the stretched out patience for a bit of a spook jam, ala Can, culling haunting tones and transfixing vocals over a steady running beat, it builds and massages into a guitar-gushing chanter of dreamy rounds of “sha-la-la-la-laaa-laaa-la-la.” While restating my begrudging indulgence of cliché – you listen to “Helium Hearts” and tell me you don’t hear early-80’s Bowie, with its enlivening strings and syrupy chorus shimmying over this “Come On Eileen” recalling shuffling beat. And, just like any SFA album, be it good or bad, there are moments where you can say, wow – I’ve never heard anything like this from them before… See: click-clack glam-groove of “White Socks/Flip Flops” and jittery-post-punky/Brianiac-meets-Led Zeppelin opener “Crazy Sexy Girls.”

So per-usual, you’ll find everything and more on this record, just as any SFA record. But don’t let the potato-avalanche overwhelm you. Just remember that this band isn’t like most in the sense that you can judge the latest release by past habits. The question is, whether said latest release is balanced, or channeled, to avoid an aural tummy-ache of varying flavors, ideas and styles. If Dary Days doesn’t get you through sufficiently, it comes damn close.

SFA on Myspace
Rough Trade

Listen: Super Furry Animals - "Inaugural Trams"


Camera Obscura
My Maudlin Career

(words: milo)

Early on, Camera Obscura were sometimes tied to their predecessors, fellow-Scots, Belle & Sebastian – with similarly flavored soft wispy folk that begged to twinkle and crinkle along leafy paths with hand-locked lovers under autumnal twilight skies. Their 2000 debut seemed to also rake in a bit of light twee and sweet pop ala Heavenly. But somewhere around side 2 of this quintet’s second LP from 2003 – the guitars started subtly burning with this sunny surfy swagger, waving its grinning tones around like the smoky soundtrack of greasers cruising the main streets of America at the turn of the 60’s, or slick-back hairdos and Donna Reed pearls linked into some awkward slow-dance in a stuffy gymnasium.

It’s become apparent on their fourth full-length My Maudlin Career that the string-loving orchestral pop group fits much closer to early rock n roll, that American-feeling rhythm and blues backbeat, with its unassuming waltzy-percussions and flaring guitars – you could just as easily hear Jonathan Richman’s wooing, rock reverent baritone leading the way on vocals during certain tracks – but singer Tracyanne Campbell’s cherubic and soulful swoons is just part of this band’s vital distinctions setting it apart from all the other indie-pop acts out there. Another would be the addition and expansion of shimmering dream-pop recalling synths (“My Maudlin Career”) going in rounds in some transfixing shooting star barrel roll over a steady beat. The other distinction, often noted on their past two albums but amplified to an even stronger, more emotive level here (“You Told A Lie”) are the strings, the drift-and-stab of the violins that dip and rise into wintry plucked hooks, sawing along side a pedal-effected burning guitar drone.

Just as before, much of their explosive hooks and rolling rhythms balanced so nicely by soft and sunny guitars lends the songs (“French Navy,” “Swans”) to feel like the perfect road trip soundtrack. Standouts include the somber wander “James” with steadily churned bass and soft cymbal shuffles as a bonfire like guitar lights the way for Campbell’s weary-yet-childlike spell.

Camera Obscura on myspace

Camera Obscura - "My Maudlin Career"

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