Super Furry Animals are a mischievous lot. Having marked the universe with their tech-pop grandeur for 15 years, they must now keep the world wondering where their music will pop up next and in what form. For their new album, Hey Venus! (Rough Trade), the Welsh quintet maintain their love of vast, Donald Fagenesque noodling but have stripped down into a craftily introspective niche. In keeping with their new sound, they have a secret weapon in the studio, and it isn't bleeding-edge sonic wizardry or Timbaland at the desk. It's a dulcimer a hammer dulcimer, to be exact, and it's wielded on some songs with as much aplomb as any siren, blip, or squawk that's graced any of their previous seven full-lengths. What gives? "For some reason, [the album] has a 'band playing in a room' kind of mood," lead vocalist Gruff Rhys offers simply, speaking on the phone from Cardiff, Wales, in early January. "Nobody brought any samplers to the recording sessions."
Super Furry Animals emerged from the Welsh capital city amid a wave of other acts, effectively marking a movement that included bands like Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and Catatonia. The core members of the group had originally come together as a techno outfit a background that set them apart from their contemporaries. The group's first album, Fuzzy Logic (Creation, 1996), saw the combo establish its mastery of cheekily strident pop tunes. Its next release, Radiator (Flydaddy, 1997), upped the ante with an inventive melodic complexity that the Furries had obviously already mastered.
The band made its mark by continuing to issue fearless, originally crafted indie rock that stemmed at least in part from Rhys's schizoid musical background: he was in a jangle-pop band called Emily before moving on to noise ensemble Ffa Coffi Pawb. The Furries' next release, Guerilla (Flydaddy, 1999), is a densely layered technorock symphony that ranges between the cheeky blips of songs like "Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home)" and the introspective balladeering of tracks like "Fire in My Heart." Each disc since has been notable for a particular reason, whether it's an all-Welsh double album (2000's Mwng [Placid Casual]), a special DVD with a video crafted for each song (2001's Rings around the World [Sony]), or the quirky explorations into spaced-out country rock and überharmonic ruminating on recent albums Phantom Power (XL, 2003) and Love Kraft (XL/Beggars, 2005). Hey Venus!, Rhys explains, is partially based on the mellow mood he described earlier in our conversation. "In the past I wrote all the lyrics, and then the last two years [the band has become] more confident and has started to bring complete songs to the soup." He pauses, then confirms, "I suppose this was a songwriting kind of record."
Which brings us back to that dulcimer, most prominently used on the bittersweet "Carbon Dating." It's a signature Furries multicultural hash: a kaleidoscopic ballad that begins as a carnival waltz before morphing into MotownmeetsEnnio Morricone doo-wop surrealism. Rhys credits its composer, keyboard player Cian Ciárán, calling it "the most beautiful song on the record" before explaining that Ciárán also played dulcimer on it. Demonstrating the band's virtuosity and playfulness in the studio, the dulcimer is showcased like a sonic effect throughout Hey Venus!, echoing like a ghost as all other instruments drop away. Lest fans think the Furries have gone fully folk, Rhys laughs and explains the instrument's lure: "Dulcimer for us represents a lot of the old Michael Caine cold war spy movies.
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