Several years ago, I had a conversation with a colleague about how the Super Furries had a tendency to deconstruct their own sound, wilfully spoiling the polish on some songs. We were talking specifically about ‘Phantom Power’, with passing reference to earlier work. The Beach Boys fascination which reached its zenith with the marvellous and yet bizarrely overlooked ‘Hey Venus!’ was clearly present long before that, but strung out, cut up and looped techniques used on their material at points made you wonder if they just didn’t want things to be just so or even, as at times they have been, perfect.
However, people change and, with ‘Hotel Shampoo’, Gruff Rhys has made his perfect pop album. The broad stereo sound, with two separate drum patterns and a beefy bit of piano, which sets out the stall on ‘Honey All Over’ is one of the finest individual music moments of this year for me. To me, it sounds not unlike ‘Phantom Power’ era SFA, but it’s unashamedly catchy, delicately arranged and, let’s not be coy, utterly beautiful.
Having been preceded by a quite stunning pair of singles, expectations for this album were high. First came ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ which bubbles out of the speakers, a chaotic and infectious signal of what is to come, while ‘Sensations In The Dark’, with its mariachi fascination and title based on the cheap, light-up Eighties keyboard on which it was birthed, truly raised the bar after the previous solo outings. Which is not to say that ‘Yr Atal Genhedlaeth’ and ‘Candylion’ aren’t worth your time, just that they both had their moments whereas ‘Hotel Shampoo’ is a whole album like that – full of ‘moments’.
‘Sophie Softly’ is another of those perfect tracks which evoke certain past SFA eras but with its gorgeous, sympathetic production very much belongs in the here and now. Gruff’s marshmallows-on-a-hot-chocolate vocal floats across these songs delightfully and it’s hard to imagine ever tiring of this album as a complete listening experience. I don’t skip bits, I don’t wait for the odd song to end and, though I can’t deny that ‘Honey All Over’ goes on pretty much any compilation I make at the moment, I regularly play this from start to finish.
Starting the second half with ‘Christopher Columbus’, a stunning, dub-inspired track with a repeated, distorted horn refrain is, in a similar fashion if not sound to when you first heard ‘Northern Lites’, something truly unexpected. And then there’s the sweetly sung ‘Space Dust #2’, featuring Sarah Assbring who, understandably, trades under the stage name of El Perro Del Mar (also worth checking out, music fans.) While the scuzzier side of the Furries isn’t often on show here, anyone who has ever had their heart slightly melted by one of their more swoonsome numbers, needs ‘Hotel Shampoo’ in their collection. ‘At The Heart Of Love’ has stately drums coupled with somnambulant piano which builds to a chorus to which one might gently sway adoringly. And then, just when you’re lost in a moment of almost tearful reverie, the bastard brings in a horn part to leave you helpless.
‘Patterns Of Power’ sounds a little like one of the men who made ‘Radiator’ getting a little older and, hey, what do you know? It has that familiar chugging verse, before a bustling chorus with falsetto and fuzzy guitar sounds that made SFA’s second album such a stunning release nearly fifteen years ago. Forgive the number of comparisons, but how do we judge things if not by putting them in the context of that which we already know? And if you already like the Furries, you will love this record.
‘Hotel Shampoo’ is an album which ticks all of the singer/songwriter boxes. It has lashings of melody, a sizeable tranche of singalong choruses and an enigmatic frontman. It should, by rights, have made Rhys huge. However, I’ll settle for knowing that all of you good people are suitably informed about this record and suitably entertained by its many, many charms.