Friday, April 27, 2007

Shuffle : Slow Life

I've been reluctant to write about music here before. Not because of any general "Dancing to architecture" principle, but because its difficult, and I think about music a lot less than I used to. I used to think about what I liked and how I liked it and why I liked it an awful lot. Now I just listen to it. I like much more music than ever before, my taste keeps broadening, I enjoy different aspects of differents genres and artists. So thinking about it all seems less important, somehow. But I listen to music all the time and its as important to me as cinema or literature or even football are, so I feel like I'm neglecting it, like I should devote some posts to it now and again. The problem being that I'm less obsessive about particular artists than I've ever been. Like I said in my last music post - months ago - my listening is song-based now. Albums, even artists to some extent, are a lot less crucial than they used to be. So, if I talk about music here, the likelihood is I'll focus on one song, and just talk that into the ground.

Damn I love the Super Furry Animals. The most interesting British group of their generation by far, they seem to be able to do anything. Consider that they emerged on a Creation label in the shadow of Oasis at the height of their BritPop fame and quietly went about releasing a series of devastating records, untroubled by commercial concerns, confident that Creation were making so much money off the Gallaghers that they could afford to just about do what they wanted, as long as they were sensible about it. Each one of those records is full of psychedelic rock songs, but each displays a definite progression from the last, their vision growing ever more ambitious, and their ability to articulate that vision becoming increasingly assured. They are equally at home in many registers - they do beautiful acoustic balladry ("Fire In My Heart"), epic rock songs ("Demons", "Ice Hockey Hair", a few dozen others) pop-soul ("Juxtaposed With U") and flirt with dance music on each album. "The Man Don't Give A Fuck", one of the best singles of the 1990s, starts as a creepy psychedelic folk song before violently transforming itself into a rocking dancefloor groove based around a Steely Dan sample via some lyrics about the corrupting ideological power of television. They've released an album sung entirely in their native Welsh language, their singer has released a couple of quality solo albums, they bought a second-hand tank, painted it blue and rode around in it at Glastonbury playing techno out of loudspeakers before selling it to Don Henley, and they've done gigs dressed as golden retrievers. Their songs are rarely concerned with romantic dilemmas or the vaguely empty uplift of their peers - Gruff Rhys is politically motivated, and he likes to question and comment on the culture of which he is a part, even if this commentary is often hilariously oblique and full of odd tangents. They've never been as successful as they deserve to be, but they have a loyal following, and their last two albums maintained the high standard set by their career-best, "Rings Around The World". Theres a new album due later this year, said to be stripped-down and more of a rock album than the last few.

In 2004, the Super Furries were one of the acts featured in Michael Winterbottom's undervalued and misunderstood "9 Songs". The film is split into narrative chapters interspersed between scenes shot live at various concerts (featuring other acts such as Michael Nyman, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Elbow). One of those concerts is a Super Furry Animals gig at the Brixton Academy, and the song they play is "Slow Life", the closing track off their 2003 album "Phantom Power". I'd bought that record the day it was released, but it went into the iTunes stew alongside everything else, and though I'd listened to "Slow Life", it had never really made any impression on me. Until watching that movie in a cinema, where it sounded epic and magnificent. Which it is.

The way it starts, with an actual intro, is part of its beauty: light, almost ballet Delibes strings stutter in and out, then a backbeat kicks over the top. Its replaced by a weirdly retro electro groove with synthesiser bleeps and distorted strings sliding overhead that goes on for about a minute, before a definitively SFA touch. A wailing harmonica comes out of the left channel, a rhythm guitar chugging away beneath it, before the whole band kicks in, vocal "oooohs" and Sean O'Hagans lovely gliding strings giving the song its form.
Then we're into the first verse, a single run-through of the chorus, "Rocks are slow life" repeated alongside a string refrain, and then the song breaks down. We're back to that electro soundscape of the intro, a new rhythmic component making this rendition seem tenser, the synthesiser sounds bleaker, then again the deliverance of the band, this time introduced by a twisting, melodic guitar line. Another simple verse, then we ride the chorus home, the string arrangements taking over as the band fades away. Finally its just strings, the last "oooohs" having ebbed away entirely. The lyrics contrast the frenetic, claustrophobic, scary nature of modern life with the eternal, patient existence of the world. "Rocks Are Slow Life" addresses the idea that even mountains have memories, the litany of recieved imagery in the verses contrasted with the repetition of that chorus. But its the beauty of those strings and the melody and the epic size of it all that makes it work. This isn't an mp3 blog, so no links. If you're interested in the song, you know where to look...



Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Do you have the DVD versions of the albums? I think it was Rings Around the World and Phantom Power where they did it.

It was just the album but every track had some sort of video to go with it, ranging from little narratives and Pete Fowler animations to glorified screen-savers. I always thought of it as somewhat of a missed the videos included never came near to matching the songs for inventiveness.

Shame. Good band though, and anything I've got by them is handily up North. Bah.

9:19 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

Best slow-motion gunfight since The Untouchables.

I don't own or know anything by SFA. I got this silly, happy look-at-us vibe off them which I didn't like, and is also why I don't like The Flaming Lips.

But for some reason it's not the same for the Polyphonic Spree.

I think I remember some cheery chorus. Like a jingle. I'm guessing Rings Around the World, becuase it was just this grinning 'Ring Ring' line. Didn't connect with it. Didn't see how these guys were any better than Supergrass, who were also pretty 'Meh'

Can't say I'm all that excited about The Beatles either.

9:41 pm  
Blogger David N said...

They definitely did the DVD thing for Rings Around The World, but I'm not sure about Phantom Power. I think they're doing it for the new album though.

Some of their stuff sounds like Supergrass, in that its basically psychedelic rock. But they're more widescreen and epic, and not so determinedly retro. Nothing like the Flaming Lips except in some of their promotional activities, where they can seem wacky, though the music never is (except maybe the conclusion of the Rings Around the World single, which you cite).

The Polyphonic Spree are a one-trick pony, more or less a novelty act, and SFA's b-sides are better than everything they've done barring 3 songs off that last album but one.

The Beatles? Of course not. You like Metal. "The Mans Music."

11:19 pm  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I saw them in Brixton driving around the stage on a golf-kart with Goldie Lookin Chain. It was brilliant.

I think the Phantom Power one was just a special edition CD with the DVD in, rather than a proper DVD box. It looked all wooden.

11:57 pm  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Bah, I was lying. DVD box.

11:59 pm  
Blogger jamesinbrasil said...

If you are only going to right about music occasionally, then you might as well focus on the best. SFA are about the only British 'indie' band of the last 15 years band that I would even consider being worthy of placing next to the best US 'indie' bands (please note that every time I use the 'I' word I feel all dirty inside), such as Pavement, Sebadoh, Blues Explosion, Pixies, the Flaming Lips (they may look happy but most of there songs are about dying) etc. Most UK indie rock is so lame and repetitive it bores me to tears (The Kooks et al). SFA were the opposite, constantly pushing themselves and almost always succeeding.

I thought that DVD was a missed opportunity too, also, as most of the videos were a bit rubbish. It was still a great album though, and better than '9 songs'.

2:00 pm  
Blogger Daniel said...

SFA are pretty much the only band I have any interest in anymore, as davey can attest. i am probably their ultimate fan-boy. i even fall for their pre-album promotions like the Lazer-beam snowdome or the Pete Fowler models.
I still have the receipt for Fuzzy Logic and ive bought Radiator three times. I was so excited about getting Geurilla on the first day that I crashed the car on the way to the shops. I could go on like this all day. The RATW DVD was indeed a blown chance, but still a first. I hate to say it, but they should have perhaps begged the record company for a little more money, as although they obviously made the choices for directors, the end result was a little college-based. The Run Christian, Run video was so frustratingly bad it almost constipated me. probably because I had an image of black and white, bodies thrown upon bodies under the moonlight in my head, and they settled for, essentially and end credit sequence with flames in the background. Hrumph.
The phantom Power one was better and more elaborate. they didnt bother with the last album - only released one single too, the lacklustre Lazer Beam. i doubt they'll opt for a full DVD album release again, especially as they've now been dropped by Sony. Maybe the political motivation has got too much. Maybe they're just a bit sick of each other. Sadly, I doubt we'll get more than one more album from them. I'll still buy it on the day of release, and any trinkets they choose to blow their promotion budget on.
Candylion is also growing on me like a powerful moss.

11:56 am  

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