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Ringleaders

 

Super Furry Animals: Rings Around The World

XL Recordings/Beggars Group, 2002

Rating: 4.2 (3.8 without second CD)

 

 

Posted: March 24, 2002

By Laurence Station

The July 2001 UK release of Rings Around The World, the fifth full length from Welsh pop experimentalists Super Furry Animals, promised to be the artistic culmination of the group's unique, genre-bending brand of music. While it proved to be a peak of sorts, mixing elements from the outfit's four prior releases, artistically much of Rings sounded more like a band spinning its wheels (albeit with an expensive set of brand-new tires) than a group charging recklessly ahead, paving the way towards pop's future.

From the off-kilter Britpop brimming on the Furries' 1996 debut Fuzzy Logic, through the stripped-down Welsh folk of 2000's brilliant Mwng, the band has doggedly explored a variety of styles -- from punk to psychedelic -- with a wonderfully skewed sensibility. Rings is the refinement of the Furries' hybrid approach to music making, adding lush orchestral arrangements to the majority of the songs and just plain overproducing others via a wide swath of studio bells and whistles.

"Alternate Route to Vulcan Street" opens the record with a clean piano arrangement, interwoven with singer Gruff Rhys' inimitable lyrics concerning the breaking apart of a relationship. The second track, "Sidewalk Serfer Girl" concerns a girl who awakens, Rip van Winkle-like, after 15 years, only to find the world around her markedly changed.

"Receptacle for the Respectable" manages to be intricately structured, gradually changing from slow beat to rapid tempo and then adding studio blips and squiggles before breaking down into a threatening, artificially synthesized drone. And all this occurs, amazingly, within the space of four-odd minutes. It's the perfect embodiment of what the Furries do so well: taking normal conventions, 4/4 beats and so forth, and totally subverting them by song's end. The addition of Paul McCartney's celery-and-carrots-crunching "rhythm section" is buried in the finished production, however, adding little to the overall power of the tune.

Contrasting "Receptacle's" conventional-to-bizarre approach is "Juxtaposed With U," which moves from a computer-voiced crooner to Rhys' smooth balladry in an appealingly seamless manner. A steady backbeat conjoined with the wonderfully pacifistic chorus "You've got to tolerate/All those people that you hate" make the song one of the album's highlights.

The sunny pop of the title track, "(Drawing) Rings Around the World," utilizes the notion of space junk revolving around the planet to comment on the dangers of satellite communication subverting the immediacy of personal contact. Unfortunately, the upbeat tempo dampens the deeper message, leaving a fainter impression than was perhaps intended.

The release of the US version of Rings contains the original UK release, along with a seven-song second disc containing some of the Furries' best work to date. The main difference between the two discs is the absence of heavy-handed production/polishing on the second batch, elevating the overall quality of Rings from a subpar Super Furry release to one of the strongest albums in the band's formidable catalogue.

"Tradewinds" rides on a funky, progressive drumbeat and catchy hooks, moving at a smartly clipped pace. "The Roman Road" offers a stripped down, straight-ahead guitar-strummed travelogue with absolutely nothing inessential added to the clear, laid-back mix.

Riffing on the Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm Gun," "Happiness Is A Worn Pun" is a flat out rocker drenched in a wash of unapologetically dirty feedback. "Gypsy Space Muffin," meanwhile, is a lo-fi filtered, distortion-heavy bluesy number that stands alongside the band's best singles.

If you don't already own Rings, then the US version is the easy choice. If you bought the UK version last year (like this reviewer), it's still worth owning for the uniformly great bonus material. Regardless, the Super Furry Animals are one of the few bands operating by its own set of rules and while Rings might not cover as much ground as the group's earlier work, it's still a welcome contrast to the tepid assortment of pop vehicles currently cluttering today's musical highways.

 
Super Furry Multimedia
Rings Around the World holds the distinction of being the first album released simultaneously on DVD and CD. The DVD contains exclusive video clips and mini movie, as well as remixes for each song on the album.

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