Gruff Rhys


(Rough Trade/Team Love; 2007)

By Dom Sinacola | 30 November 2007

In two ways, for as long as I've known him, Gruff Rhys has been an unrelenting character: with prolificacy and with cuteness. His liberally vague politics can be unrelenting, as can his use of animation (graphing a cartoonish celluloid over most everything he does) and his sense of humor, making his regular genre excursions seem goofy. But it's not like Rhys shouldn't be taken seriously, and for every googling calypso like "Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru" or long bard fart like "Skylon," the albums he makes are that much more accessible. Just, when, along with his Super Furry bandmates and all their side projects, Rhys is dripping out album after album of thick, strange, and sometimes downright adorable pop music, Candylion sounds poised, more than any other release, to wink out and move on.

Consider the last two-or-so years. Gruff's first solo album, Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, came out in the spring of 2005; it was a teensy affair, morbidly simple but so easy to piece apart that the Welsh lyrics went catholic on melody alone. Then Love Kraft filled the end of 2005's summer, and that was yet another faithful Furries mine of tit for tat, sugar and spice bonanzas. Somewhere, a Vol. 1 of SFA singles hit the buckling shelves, a Phantom Power (2003) DVD of animated translations for each song was still waiting to catch on, and Gruff was at Bonnaroo with Bright Eyes while Beggars and XL were reissuing the entire Super Furry Animal backlogue up until Rings Around the World (2001) amidst neo-millennial lauding about the band's relevance in "contemporary," irreverent bliss-pop music. In a few months, Rhys will release an album with Boom Bip, going under the moniker Neon Neon and harboring such guests as Har Mar Superstar, Spank Rock, and Fat Lip; dude's one curation away from being a safe, sweet canon unto himself.

So, it's no big surprise that this album easily overshadows Euros Childs's recent solo deal apart from Gorky's Zygotic Mynci; the Super Furry Animals always felt bigger than their similarly minded Welsh brethren. And while each collection of tunes and collection of appearances yielded typically solid and engaging results, Candylion doesn't do much of anything to get Rhys listeners really excited, besides emptying out the coffers of all the gorgeous little melodies the songwriter's always bound to have stored up anyway. Yet again, Rhys is turning to Mario Caldato Jr. for production help, and yet again the choice makes perfect sense considering Caldato's gracious work on Love Kraft or his aid with the Beastie Boys, Beck, Seu Jorge, and, even, Jack Johnson. Yet again, Sean O'Hagan from the High Llamas contributes strings, and it's some smooth shit. Yet again, I find myself having insatiable daydreams about Gruff's bedroom eyes.

I don't mean to turn a talented guy's career into an assembly line, but there's got to be something to say about the way the second half of the new record can't even stick to the ribs. Granted, while "This is Just The Beginning" is a noxious joke of a Technicolor synth-tro, "Candylion" parses through blocky snare and smiling bumblebee strings to give Lisa Jen's vocals a bit more to work with than a repetitive four-note chorus, churning Smokey Robinson through a Polyphonic Spree and having the riff come out golden. Then "The Court Of King Arthur" doesn't really lay out more than sticky stardust noise fx and basketball bass, but Gruff's vocal melody is damned cathartic, showcasing every reason why Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, so much more sublimely bare and alien than Candylion, ends up a superior, compelling tag to his solo career. Even "Lonesome Words," saccharine in its sudden seriousness, offers ample evidence to Rhys's inimitable clout as empirical pop titan, rounding up sharp strings in tandem with Jen's misting coos, playing that over spaghetti western guitar. No matter the cliché parts or the forced tarts, Gruff's timing and sense of arrangement is always impeccable.

And that's the first half, the series of songs that keep Rhys vital as a pop monk. I'm aiming to lambaste the second half, where "Now That The Feeling Is Gone" --> "Ffrwydriad Yn Y Ffurfafem" mimics tone, cadence, rhythm, and structure of "The Court Of King Arthur" --> "Lonesome Words," including the tumbleweed implications, and where almost-fifteen-minute "Skylon!" ceases to defend its suffocating monotony. The terrible truth is that -- and maybe this is a matter of an album's length, replayability, interesting tenure, obedience, whatever -- Gruff Rhys will always be as politely awesome as Gruff Rhys has always been, and that's just not enough anymore. I'm not asking for grit, and I'm not praying for de-saturation, I'd just like to be surprised every once in a while. Even if it means a terrible disappointment.