Ever since I got a copy of the 'Play It Cool' CD single back in 1997, the Super Furry Animals were a band who fascinated me. Their colourful and slightly odd sounds made them like the mad scientists of late 90s indie. But by 2003 I had gone off them a bit, as I thought their 6th album 'Phantom Power' was disappointing (apart from the awesome 'Slow Life') and I thought their best was behind them. Then I spent the next five years or so shunning my old indie favorites as I became obsessed with punk, ska and psychobilly. So it's been nearly 8 years since I last explored any new music from the Super Furries, with the band putting out quite a few albums during that time AND singer GRUFF RHYS releasing solo material..... so here is his second solo album 'Hotel Shampoo', and a perfect opportunity for me to bring myself up to date with this guy's music.
Opening track 'Shark Ridden Waters' is an excellent start, defying genres and leaving you wondering what other mad style splicing is in store over the course of the album. The charming 'Honey All Over' brings out sumptuous Beach Boys flavours while the joyfully cheeky single 'Sensations In The Dark' picks things up with its increasingly catchy hooks and playfulness. 'Vitamin K' is another lovely Brian Wilson-esque piece, nicely understated and with pleasing contrasts between the sad and the joyous. 'Take A Sentence' is also nice, with its humble trumpet, charming strings and another one of those divine melodies.
However by track 6 things drop off a bit with the rather unremarkable 'Conservation Conversation' and in another bit of trying to be clever with wordplay, there's 'Sophie Softly', which has some nice 'Pet Sounds'-like arrangements as well as a gorgeous outro, but should've been left as an instrumental. At first the rather mental hip hop northern soul of 'Christopher Columbus' sounds great, but as well as being ridiculously repetitive (not in a good way) the chorus is a let down and has the air of an unsuccessful novelty song. 'Space Dust #2' is a duet with Swedish singer El Perro Del Mar that interests with it's quirky lounge jazz stylings, but isn't one of 'Hotel Shampoo''s better moments.
But with the final four tracks we get redemption.... 'At The Heart Of Love' is as good as anything Gruff's ever done, matching a harmonious melody with a gloriously downplayed piano and string arrangement, it would've fitted in perfectly on 'Rings Around The World' or maybe even 1997's 'Radiator'. And the feeling, sound and quality of early Super Furry Animals continues with 'Patterns Of Power', a straight forward pleasure beginning with one of those weird guitar sounds similar to those on 'Fuzzy Logic' and a completely random disco interlude that takes place where you'd expect the traditional guitar solo to be. Gruff is really good at writing beautiful, understated moments of reflection, and 'If We Were Words We Would Rhyme' is a perfect example of that, delivering it with a sweet hint of double bass and pedal steel. The album ends just as brilliantly as it started with 'Rubble Rubble', an unusual and beautiful little ballad, with drum machines and dreamy synth sounds accompanying Gruff as he again sounds like the current holder of that gift for melody that once belonged to the Beach Boys.
So definitely not a perfect album, although it starts and ends brilliantly. Neither is it an album that treads new ground or breaks boundaries, however at times it manages to turn odd sounds into perfectly accessible almost traditional songs, while the more straight forward moments sound very well written indeed. There are a few weak points, but I have a skip button on my CD player and I'm prepared to use it, because when the songs are good they're more than worth a listen. Looking forward to the Super Furry Animals returning at some point, but until then this'll do just nicely. 7/10