SUPER FURRY ANIMALS Fuzzy Logic (Creation)

Rapidly ascending to the top of an increasingly large pile of Welsh indie bands (narrowly beating Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, whose ‘xylophones on our fingers and bells on our toes’ hatchet-jobs on the Syd Barrett songbook can be a little wearing over the course of an entire album), SFA’s storming debut album pays rather more attention to the concept of scuzzy three minute tunes (e.g. the singles "God! Show Me Magic" and "Something For The Weekend") as well as the customary lyrical weirdness we’ve come to expect from the principality (e.g. "Fuzzy Birds", a song about hamster-generated electricity, and lines like "Me and you and the guy from Sparks/Hangin’ out with Howard Marks"). Best track is the mellower "Mario Man", littered (as is much of the album) with creaky old analogue synth noises. SFA sound like Teenage Fanclub with a language barrier, or a punk Oasis capable of original thoughts, which can’t be a bad thing.

SUPER FURRY ANIMALS Radiator (Creation)

This Welsh beat ensemble’s second album maintains the atmosphere of cheerful chaos and confusion that smogged all over last year’s rather good "Fuzzy Logic" debut, and if anything they now sound even more like a modern interpretation of Syd Barrett’s second album than before, a key lyric being "Stuffed to the eyeballs with god knows what". It may lack their big (last) Christmas single, the Steely Dan-sampling "The Man Don’t Give A F***", but it does contain stompalong glam rackets such as "The International Language Of Screaming", warped Beach Boys harmonising during "She’s Got Spies", lullaby instrumentals ("Furryvision") and substance-addled politicking in the form of "Download" and "Mountain People", ending with a few minutes of analogue synth abuse that harks back to SFA’s techno roots. All in all "Radiator" is an intoxicating brew that’s much, much easier to listen to than describe, so if your interest in modern pop extends further than generic Noelrock tedium I’d recommend you do so. And respect to Creation for pressing it as a double album, for maximum sound quality, even though it’s barely forty-five minutes long.

SFA Out-Spaced (Creation)

In which the Super Furry Animals, being of a stock-taking and consolidating sorta disposition, present an unlucky thirteen non-album a-sides, b-sides and other rarities for your listening pleasure. "Out-Spaced" even casts its net backwards into their pre-Alan McGee career, featuring tracks from the 1995 "Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllantysiliogogogochynygofodinspace" and "Moog Droog" EPs, from when they used to be more into techno than the kind of twisted Celtic glam rock they serve up these days. Although most of "Out-Spaced" is enjoyable enough the best track just has to be the Steely Dan-sampling "The Man Don't Give A Fuck", which with typical SFA commercial nous they released as their Christmas single in 1996. It sums up their attitude perfectly and it has Donald Fagen singing on it - how much better can music get?!

SFA Guerrilla (Creation)

The third Super Furry Animals album looks terrific from a distance: preceded by one of their finest singles in "Northern Lites" (think the theme from "Grandstand" colliding with Beck's "Tropicalia"), heralded by press reviews proclaiming it to be of the calibre of The Flaming Lips' mighty "The Soft Bulletin" (not a comparison to take or make lightly), it arrives as a limited edition vinyl version pressed on two 45rpm discs for maximum sound quality, dressed in a funky pop-up sleeve. Apparently Creation's second most popular act after a certain Mancunian guitar ensemble, "Guerrilla" is the sound of the Super Furries bringing in the big guns.

Which to an extent the album more than justifies: there is much that is great here, especially compared to the rather dour "Radiator" album, which failed to match their sparkling debut "Fuzzy Logic" in the longevity stakes. Like The Flaming Lips, SFA want to be everywhere, all the time, a wide-eyed curiosity and sense of endless invention pushing parts of "Guerrilla" far beyond what we've become accustomed to expect from rock groups in these dark Noelrock days. "Northern Lites" remains the standout track, but spare some time for "The Turning Tide", a huge, majestic ballad in the vein of John Lennon's "Mind Games" or The Verve's "History", the unusually direct love song "Fire In My Heart" and happy days toytown stompalongs such as "Do Or Die", "Nightvision" and "Keep The Cosmic Trigger Happy".

So far so fantastic. But what "Guerrilla" also possesses, unfortunately, are a number of tracks wherein an idea is stretched way beyond its limit of elasticity: never before have the Super Furries not known when to end a song, but the one joke likes of "Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home)" and the two line mantra "Some Things Come From Nothing" spiral on endlessly beyond their fade-out-by dates. Such self indulgence wouldn't have been given house room on "Fuzzy Logic", so its appearance here, on a double album that still clocks in at under 45 minutes, is inexcusable.

Nevertheless, "Guerrilla" is two-thirds fantastic, and if I could only take one SFA album with the to that gramophone-equipped desert island this would be that. Just don't expect it to be the saviour of music as we know it, as some quarters seem to be suggesting it is.

SUPER FURRY ANIMALS/MASSIVE ATTACK/BIG LEAVES Cardiff International Arena 20 December 1999

"Mash Up The CIA" they called it, and staking their claim the Super Furry Animals offered surround sound, their cover star Howard Marks as MC and Massive Attack spinning discs in all the spaces in between.

But first they gave us Big Leaves, a Welsh band and friends of the Furries. Obviously totally in thrall to the headliners' sound, they conclusively demonstrated that guitars/bass/drums/perspiration can only take you so far down that elusive yellow brick road to nu-psychedelic enlightenment. Thanks, but then again, no thanks.

Rather more impressive, despite being rather less there (dim shadowy figures on stage in proximity to what could have been decks if you squinted a bit, but little sign of Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel-type vinyl-spinning dexterity) were 3D and Daddy G, the remaining tenants of the parish of Massive Attack. Yes, all they did was play records, but they did so with the sort of freestyling casual abandon that distances them from the celebrity phonograph equestrians churning out production-line mix CDs for the TV-advertised/Woolworths market. No borders, no boundaries. I recognised The Clash, PiL's "Death Disco" and "Fodderstompf" (the latter played at the wrong speed, for maximum disorientation - respect!), Desmond Dekker, The Damned and, most unfathomably, vast tracts of "Dark Side Of The Moon". Nobody danced, but that hardly seemed the point: when it comes to sculpting something new out of juxtaposing (heck, mashing up) the old the only acts I've seen/heard come anywhere close are the Brothers Chemical (on their "Brother's Gonna Work It Out" CD) and The Scratch Perverts (ripping the Unkle album to shreds during the NME's televised Premier Shows last year). And they haven't even got a logo.

After a few minutes of good-natured shambolic drawled babble from Mr Marks, somebody arrives on stage with an alpenhorn, and proceeds to blow it as if warning ships away from dangerous cliffs. It is clearly going to be that sort of night, the sort of night of which memories and recollections are necessarily haphazard and random. There are six speaker stacks suspended from the auditorium ceiling, and sparsely but effectively employed to gently relocate the audience smack dab in the middle of the Super Furries' vision of how life should be, or maybe is. Deep inside the mantras "Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home)", "Some Things Come From Nothing", "The Door To This House Remains Open" and "Nightvision" you're no longer imprisoned in the CIA's barn-like acoustic, you're gently cocooned in a womb of swirling near-subsonic frequencies, going as low as the laws of physics dare allow. For their pearlescent reading of "Northern Lites" SFA employ a brass section. Not an ordinary brass section, naturally, but one decked out in panda and pope outfits. And why not? When it comes to playing "Fire In My Heart", possibly the most childishly simple yet sincere ballad of the year, lead Furry Gruff Rhys pauses proceedings between each verse, and yes, you could have heard a pin drop. Or more appropriately a balloon drop, as later in the evening hundreds of white balloons are unleashed from the rafters. They play "Mountain People", and it grows itself a thudding techno closing that possibly outsquidges the version that ends the "Radiator" album. And because underneath all the excess and experimentation they're showbiz to the core, they save the best for last.

"The Man Don't Give A Fuck" was notorious even before it was released. Notwithstanding the sort of title that doesn't exactly endear itself to daytime radio programmers, there was a lengthy will-he/won't-he tussle over whether or not Donald Fagen would grant permission for SFA to use the Steely Dan sample (from "Show Biz Kids") that forms the song's core. Happily he did, and "The Man Don't Give A Fuck" stands as one of the band's finest recorded five minutes. But live, of course, that's just the beginning of it. Having whipped up the entire CIA into a seething mass of bodies hoarsely yelling "You know they don't give a fuck about anybody else" the band leave the stage, with the exception of keyboardist Cian, who, hunched over racks of tortured electronics coaxes up a screaming Hardfloor-style acid marathon that seems to last forever, at least, before the euphoria is shattered by the theme from "Jesus Christ Superstar", of all things, and the appearance on the stage of four, waving, Teletubby-like figures whose masks gradually slip to reveal human faces. They leave, the house lights come on and a few thousand dazed but happy people stagger out into a Welsh winter night, pursued by the still-thudding clatter of drum machines.

So where does that leave us? The Manics have the inscrutable ideologies, Stereophonics shift units by the megabore-load, Gorky's are ever charming against considerable odds, but no band from the principality can confound your jaded expectations and mess with your mind like the Super Furry Animals on a good night, diving headlong into the kind of visual and sonic experience that lifts a gig skyscrapers above a marginally more participatory version of listening to the records. Don't try this at home, they should have warned us, because you can’t. Rumours suggest that 2000 will bring the world both SFA's Welsh-language album and their techno long-player - unbelievably, the Super Furries' tank appears to be rumbling towards even weirder terrain.

SUPER FURRY ANIMALS Mwng (Placid Casual)

"Mwng", the Super Furry Animals' fourth long player, is their first to be sung entirely in their native Welsh, although you'd be hard pressed to notice just from Gruff Rhys' singing, which is barely comprehensible at the best of times even in English. A greater difference can be detected in the music on "Mwng" (which means "Mane", incidentally, and probably explains the sleeve drawing of a pipe-puffing horse), which is calmer than their usual brand of swaggering anarchic psychedelia, more rural, and a lot closer to that spun by countrymates Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. Sometimes it's absolutely lovely - witness the bubblegum Beach Boys barbershop of "Ymaelodi 'r Ymylon", or the starry-eyed mossy swoon of "Mawrth Oer Ar Y Blaned Neifion" - but mostly "Mwng" seems to contain the kind of music that the listener needs to meet more than halfway. The cripplingly addictive hooks and terrace rants just aren't in evidence here, and it has nothing to do with the perceived language barrier. Full marks for making such a brave statement, though, but roll on their proposed techno album, which will hopefully contain rather more musical enjoyment.

SUPER FURRY ANIMALS Rings Around The World (Epic)

If you felt the first stirrings of a suspicion that all was not super in FurryWorld during last year's atypically reserved Welsh language amble "Mwng", I regret to report that their first major label opus fails to arrest their slide into irrelevance, perhaps ironically by appearing so desperately so to do. Having had big money to splash out on an album for arguably the first time in their career, the Super Furries gleefully invest in all manner of flash and twang in the hope that it will paper over the deep-seated cracks in what has to be the weakest collection of material of their career. Look over there, there's John Cale playing piano! Maybe you blinked and missed it, never mind, here's their new mate Paul McCartney and the most musical set of jaws in pop chewing on carrots and celery, presumably for no other reason than the fact that he did exactly the same thing 34 years ago on The Beach Boys' "Smiley Smile". Gasp. And it's faintly ironic that Macca should appear here, because "Rings Around The World" is truly Super Furry Animals' "Sgt. Pepper", all dazzling effects and trickery designed to divert the listener's attention from the grossly underwritten nature of the music buried deep underneath.

If you listened to this album with half an ear you might not draw such a damning conclusion: it certainly sounds superficially like the Super Furries. But crucially there's scarcely a note or an idea that they haven't fully exercised before now (the mobile phone fetishism at the album's core was already done to death on their 1999 career best "Guerrilla", for example). It might even look like a Super Furries album, until you discern that the cover illustrations and artwork seem far cruder than any that adorned their Creation works. It seems depressingly like SFA are this year's Creation band ruined by Sony money - last year Teenage Fanclub took the tumble - lured by top dollar into producing something so ruthlessly typical that it only succeeds in pounding out everything that was great about the band in the first place.

And a few other things. "Rings Around The World" has been widely hyped as the first album to be simultaneously released on conventional formats and DVD. Somewhat pointlessly, however, "Rings Around The World" has been released on DVD Video, crammed with low-budget visuals for each track that even the band themselves seem to concur don't exactly push back the boundaries of the promotional clip (the irony here is that this is the first Super Furry Animals album that would actually benefit from having something around to distract you from the music) and Dolby 5.1 surround sound mixes, like it's 1973 again and the only place to be is right in the middle of all the alarm clocks going off during the intro to The Floyd's "Time". Cheers for that. "Rings Around The World" hasn’t simultaneously been released on conventional formats and DVD Audio, Japan Inc.'s preferred, potentially higher quality (depending who you believe) successor to CD, which really would have been an interesting world-first. Could this have something to do with the fact that Sony are keener on pushing their rival SACD format, another technological pie-in-the-sky that you can't buy "Rings Around The World" on? I suppose I should at least be grateful that I was able to secure a copy of "Rings Around The World" on vinylite, albeit one stickered with the mysterious term "Side C plays 'inside out'". What this puzzling declaration refers to, it transpires, is the fact that the album's third side is not cut in the conventional fashion, i.e. playing from the circumference of the disc to the label, but spiralling outwards in the opposite direction. Er…why? Because it would position one of the album's better tracks, the single "Juxtaposed With U", towards the outer edge of the side, where it would enjoy maximum sound quality? Or just because SFA could? The net result of this comedy convention-trashing was that your reviewer had to leap gracelessly from sofa to hi-fi to intervene when a few hundred quids' worth of precision-turned Danish diamond threw itself off the outer edge of the record at the 'end' of the side: at university we used to postulate the theory that techno types such as the Aphex Twin used to lace their recordings with frequencies and waveforms deliberately designed to give playback equipment a hard time; this is the first occasion I've seen a record cast a deathwish on my hi-fi.

So, to summarise: pale imitation of their glory years, nicked ideas that are older than I am, destroys your hi-fi. Anybody want to buy my ticket for their Cardiff gig in October?

SUPER FURRY ANIMALS Phantom Phorce (Placid Casual)

"Phantom Phorce" is another improbable Super Furry Animals product. Produced in quantities so limited that chances of obtaining a copy diminished to nothingness barely a week after release, here are 15 remixes of tunes from last years "Phantom Power" album -rumoured to have been rehoused from the DVD version - interspersed with snippets of what I can only describe as a director's commentary by that album's executive producer Kurt Stern, which sound as though they should have come from the same source even if they didn't, plus a bonus EP, all housed in a cardboard confection with instructions the origamically inclined can follow to transform it into a Phantom Phorce personal console, patent pending. Enough, already?

There's some music here as well, and whilst it might be some distance from superb it nevertheless positions "Phantom Phorce" as one of the most experimental and challenging releases of the year. Weevil turn(s) "Hello Sunshine" into a siren's clarion call - imagine if Eno had produced The Flying Burrito Brothers - and Beastie Boys alumnus Mario Caldato Jr sprinkles acoustic carnival dust over "Liberty Belle". Killa Kela does a doo-wop/hip-hop number on the former glam stomp of "Golden Retriever", whilst Wauvenfold dropout boogie(s) all over "Sex, War And Robots". Four Tet sets "The Piccolo Snare" all a-clatter, and Zan Lyons puts "Out Of Control" through a complete "Changing Rooms" transformation: a punk thrash on the donor album, here it's all music box melody, distant howling and mournful strings, albeit gradually subsumed by the distorted clatter of Aphexy mechanicals. (Of this song Stern says they didn't "just put down a plinking banjo in pursuit of the Beach Boys sound. We were aiming for the Beach Boys' "Wind Chimes" kind of vocals…maybe we only got as far as the Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr Blue Sky".“ Ironically, the remixing hands of The High Llamas, one of the plinking banjo genre's leading exponents, are at work elsewhere on the album.) Llwybr Llaethog take(s) "The Undefeated" to its first Notting Hill Carnival, and Sir Doufous Styles lightly douses "Slow Life" in a Technicolor glow. Vocals still intact, it's probably the only piece here that still functions as a song without reference to the original, busily frenetic though it may appear. Unlike the closing "Hello Sunshine", which Freiband turn into ten hostile minutes of glitch techno that sounds like they started by wiping the tape clean.

The second disc, which calls itself "Slow Life EP", begins with "Phantom Power"'s mighty fine closing track, presented in a form as near to the original as makes no odds as far as I can determine. Next up is "Motherfukker", recorded in collaboration with recent touring partners the controversial Welsh rap ensemble Goldie Lookin Chain. It doesn't really answer the question of whether GLC are genuinely straight outta Newport or merely the product of bored PR minds, but this tale of alien abduction in the county of my birth has, in "I first saw the lights over Abersychan" and "That's the trouble with a close encounter/You might get a blowie but you don't get a mounter", the funniest lyrics I've heard all year. Finally, "Lost Control" is a chunky, churning Who-aping instrumental…at least until the torrential acid rainstorms arrive.

So, "Phantom Phorce" offers much exciting diversion. What it isn't, though, is a truly essential remix album. The titans of the genre - for me "Auteurs Vs -Ziq" and Primal Scream's "Echo Dek", The League Unlimited Orchestra's "Love And Dancing" for any old new romantics in the audience or even, looking down the other end of the telescope, Aphex Twin's "26 Mixes For Cash"- benefitted immeasurably by being the product of a single coherent vision. In letting 15 different artists loose on their creation the Super Furries have generated the aural equivalent of a splatter painting, reducing "Phantom Phorce" to little more than a lovingly presented, meticulously assembled collection of b-sides.

SUPER FURRY ANIMALS/BRAVE CAPTAIN 53, Preston 22 May 2005

This was my first visit to 53, the University of Central Lancashire’s modishly monikered Students’ Union, and it soon became apparent that the name must have been derived from the venue’s thermostat setting. Quite literally the coolest concert hall I’ve ever attended, some kind of industrial grade air conditioning kept the atmosphere pleasantly breezy all evening, a stark and surprising contrast to my last SU-based gig experience, when the gentle strumming of Turin Brakes turned Lancaster’s into a late-February-defying sweltering sauna.

My previous experience of former Boo Radley Martin Carr’s Brave Captain was limited to his first two albums, heavily overdubbed, substantially solo works of woozy Beatle ‘n’ Beach Boy indie psychedelia. Tonight his ranks are swelled to ZZ Top-like proportions (even including the obligatory dual beard count) by a bassist admirably grounded in dextrous heaviosity (Mark Foley of Vito, the internet reveals) and a percussionist (Phil Jenkins, formerly of Zabrinski) who hits things with such enthusiasm that at one point his headphones fall off and have to be reseated by a nimble-fingered roadie. Carr himself flits between keyboard, laptop and guitar, allowing the live Brave Captain to magick up a ferociously intense and diverse sound for a trio. So dense is their sound that it’s painfully obvious when a hole appears in it during “European Man”, resulting in much furrowed-brow staring at his laptop by Carr. It’s a shame that his attempts to get political are undercut by the nave clatter of lyrics like “Same old people with the same old lines”, which rather takes the shine off what Brave Captain do well. The closing “Weaponized”, for example, brewed up the most potent indie-dance fusion I’ve seen enacted on stage since Doves’ performance of Sub Sub’s “Space Shanty”.

After much interval merriment on the video screen involving messages scrawled, presumably by Furry hand, on a paper plate, the band arrive to a hero’s welcome and the somewhat unexpected opening gambit of “Slow Life”, closing track from their last studio album proper, “Phantom Power”. Gruff sings from a microphone placed behind the drum riser, looking as much like a vicar preaching from the pulpit as his unkempt Jeff Lynne afro will allow, later reappearing at the front of the stage wearing what appeared to be Darth Maul’s motorcycle helmet. The sound is all crystalline magnificence – whether by accident or design the venue has marvellous acoustics – although it would take nothing less than a lyric sheet to untangle Gruff’s heavily encoded pronouncements. Somewhat disappointingly, they follow this magnificence with the dumbed-down telephone line serenade “Rings Around The World”, the bonkers audience reaction suggesting the Furries could feed this crowd an evening of completely new material and they’d lap it up. Which, substantially, is what happens – the minor sacrifice that normally accompanies such a bankable act playing an underpublicised tour of small-scale venues. (Considering the last time I saw SFA was at the Manic Millennium shindig at the somewhat less intimate Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, it would seem churlish to complain.)

The songs roadtested tonight seemed rather more complex, to the extent that it was frequently difficult to know when, or even, if, to applaud, whilst also representing a natural continuation of the Wilsonesque symphonic smoothness of “Phantom Power”. At times they even suggested an unholy alliance between vintage Electric Light Orchestra and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”-era, er, Sabbath. Gruff’s introduction to “Cloudberries” – spoken with the deliberate, unhurried enunciation of a man who is either herbally enhanced or simultaneously translating his Welsh thoughts into English words – explained how the song evolved from an outing to Lancaster, during which, for lack of an immediately apparent 24-hour petrol station, the band were forced to the nearest bush for sustenance, which bore fruits that on inspection appeared to be clouds, yet on ingestion revealed themselves to be, in fact, berries.

At one point, with abnormal service temporarily halted whilst Cian’s computer rebooted, Gruff led the crowd in a spontaneous acoustic rendition of “Kumbaya”, which morphed into a verse or two of “Fire In My Heart”. Otherwise, vintage Furry tunes were thin on the ground, bar brief, bouncy blasts through “Do Or Die” and “Something 4 The Weekend”. “The Man Don’t Give A Fuck” retained its traditional set-closing position, though. Beginning with Bill Hick’s looped declaration that “All governments are liars and murderers” as images of George and Tony flickered above the stage, it meandered through the deceptive acoustic section before the embellished Steely Dan sample that provides the song’s crux set the floor quaking. Ten minutes later only Cian remained on stage, bashing out punishing, fractal shards of techno. And then there was no more, except for the return of the marker pen and the paper plate on the video screen, bidding us farewell.

If not the best Super Furries performance I’ve witnessed, I think comparisons would be unfair since the purpose behind it was clearly so different to the hometown shindigs I’ve previously attended. They brought a little psychedelic sound-dust to what it normally a rock ‘n’ roll backwater, and for that all present tonight were surely grateful.

SUPER FURRY ANIMALS / CATE LE BON The Ritz, Manchester 16 October 2009

 

So, the entertainment offered at the same venue on the next night has something of a precedent to live up to. Cate Le Bon is up first, the debut signing to Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys’ Irony Bored imprint. To me she and her band sound like The Paradise Motel with a pronounced gothic (but maybe not goth) undercurrent. She plays crypt-kicking keyboards, harmonica and guitar, and sings her dark songs of fear and death bilingually. She’s good, but a bit too cool for school, bounding offstage even before the band have concluded the final song without so much as a “Thanks Manchester, you’ve been a wunnerful audience”.

               

Theoretically excellent value for money, Super Furry Animals play a 20-song set that approaches the 100 minute mark, but why do I find them so dull? Songs such as “(Drawing) Rings Around The World” and the glam trudge of “Mt.”, while lapped up by the crowdsurfing audience, have always seemed beneath them to me, and quirks like the lengthy pauses between the verses of “Hello Sunshine” whilst the band members slug on their drinks are more annoying than endearing.  “Crazy Naked Girls” sounds like a Sabbath/Can stoner jam tailormade for Bickershaw but hopelessly indulgent here, and “The Man Don’t Give A Fuck” is shorn of its traditional lengthy technosqidge coda. Even their latest album’s most joyous moment, “Inaugural Trams”, seems dragged down tonight. The one point at which the evening comes alive for me is, ironically, the pre-recorded intro to “Slow Life”, which is euphoric in a way the rest of the set sadly isn’t. Judging by the reactions of the rest of the audience mine’s a minority view – Gruff’s instructional placards bearing legends such as “Applause” and “Woah!” are hardly necessary – but for me the Super Furries flounder in the long shadow of pop excellence cast by Saint Etienne’s performance in the same venue 24 hours previously.

 

SUPER FURRY ANIMALS Dark Days/Light Years (Rough Trade)

Like much of Super Furry Animals' 21st century work, "Dark Days/Light Years" is only a sporadically entertaining album. It plods and lumbers for far too much of its hour-long running time, only rarely achieving any kind of escape velocity. Apparently mostly the result of protracted jamming, the genesis seeps through on tracks such as "Crazy Naked Girls", the bulk of which sounds like some mud-caked behemoth staggering from a provincial festival field circa 1972. "Mt." barely sounds interested in itself, so it's a mystery as to why anybody else should bother with it. "Cardiff In The Sun" is pleasant enough but too diffuse and distended to make any significant impact; not a lot happens and it spends a long time doing it, and, like "The Very Best Of  Neil Diamond", it rather squanders the potential of its title. "White Socks/Flip Flops" offers something a bit perkier at last, but still falls victim to the album's all-pervading negativity with its "Switch it off and start again" hookline, an instruction that becomes ever more tempting with time. "Where Do You Wanna Go?" is similarly jaunty but undistinguished; it sounds like a forgotten Belle And Sebastian b-side caked in glitter against its will, and album closer "Pric" eventually transforms from a seemingly endless low-wattage  motorik chug into a seemingly endless low-wattage electronic drone.

The one glorious exception to all this mediocrity is "Inaugural Trams", which mashes up the synthetic throb of Kraftwerk at their most playful (emphasised by the German-language count-in and spoken word provided by Franz Ferdinand's Nick McCarthy) and the kind of daffy psychedelic electronic pop music I vaguely recall SFA used to make. And it celebrates energy-efficient public transport...bonus!               

The packaging of the vinyl edition of "Dark Days/Light Years" scores just about as highly as is possible on the perceived value-ometer. It's pressed as two fine-sounding 45 rpm discs, and arrives in a gatefold sleeve  with different artwork to the CD version, bearing a poster and download coupon. Not that this compensates for the music it contains, of course.

 How have they managed to turn in an album so difficult to like? Well, difficult for me to like, it would appear, with universal acclaim greeting "Dark Days/Light Years" everywhere else. It seems such an irritable, irascible album. All the band's traditional ingredients are present except, crucially, their mischievous, leavening sense of humour. What remains is, for this listener at least, lumpen and unappetising.  Dark days indeed.

SEPARADO!

Described as “a psychedelic western musical” in which “Star Trek meets Buena Vista Social Club”, “Separado!” is a hairsbreadth away from some kinda “Exit Through The Gift Shop” put-on. It charts the journey of lead Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys as he attempts to track down distant Patagonian relative Rene Griffiths, a caped, flamenco-playing Welsh-speaking singer. En route Gruff plays shows promoting his second solo album for bemused but grateful audiences in village halls across South America, collaborating with local musicians (such as Brazilian homemade drum machine-wielder Tony Da Gatorra) on the way.

The opening sequence recreates a fatal horse race that would forever alter Gruff’s family’s destiny, with 1882 Bala painted in the same sickly pink hues as the cover of Black Sabbath’s debut. Gruff follows the trail of the Welsh immigrants who journeyed to South America at the end of the 19th century, fleeing their English oppressors only to become oppressors themselves in their new land.

“Separado!” is loaded with the kind of Final Cut Pro-on-acid visual effects that seem almost mandatory on giving Gruff the budget to make a feature-length documentary. It’s certainly not without its bizarre, down-home-on-the-prairie charms, although perhaps the strangest of those is the sight of Gruff travelling around Wales in a Peugeot. It seems an unusually prosaic mode of transport, as if he should actually locomote by broomstick or flying carpet or summat. The red crash helmet he dons to travel between continents is rather more the ticket.

Manic Street Preachers/Super Furry Animals/Feeder/Shack Millennium Stadium, Cardiff Arms Park 31 December 1999

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