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Bookends

 

Super Furry Animals: Songbook: The Singles (Vol. 1)

XL / Beggars, 2004

Rating: 4.4

   

Ffa Coffi Pawb: Am Byth

Placid Casual, 2004 / Empyrean, 2005

Rating: 3.5

 

 

Posted: February 12, 2005

By Laurence Station

Fans of the inventively left-of-center Welsh pop rockers Super Furry Animals will no doubt be delighted to get their hands on Songbook, the band's first singles compilation. Also of interest is Am Byth ("Forever"), a best-of assemblage of pre-Furries tracks from singer/guitarist Gruff Rhys and drummer Dafydd Ieuan, back when the two were members of Ffa Coffi Pawb (which literally means "Everybody's Coffee Beans," but phonetically translates to the intentionally confrontational "Fuck Off Everybody").

Songbook serves the dual purpose of offering a few essential non-album tracks like "Ice Hockey Hair" and the original version of "Blerwytirhwng?" (which appeared with an exorbitant amount of drone tacked onto the end on 1998's mixed-bag B-sides compilation Out Spaced. Concurrently, neophytes will find Songbook a worthy introduction to the group's creative, anything-goes style of buoyant, melodic psychedelia.

The biggest drawback to Songbook is its sequencing, which is non-chronological (and no doubt intentionally so, considering the Furries' mischievously playful reputation). The band's evolution from wanton experimentalism to a smoother (though no less idiosyncratic) brand of pop gets jumbled, as evidenced by the jittery opener "Something For The Weekend" (recorded in 1996), followed by 2002's crooner-soulful "It's Not The End of the World?" Although the group's core musical fingerprints are undeniably in place on each, the energy and polish are completely different. The first is the sound of a band more enthusiastic than professional; the second tempers the passion of youth with a grace and maturity befitting a band that's been around the block a few times.

Fortunately, other than the derivative, faux-'70s rev-up "Do or Die" and the lukewarm "Play It Cool," Songbook is brimming with choice material. The effortlessly elegant "Juxtapozed with U" remains one of the group's most dizzyingly hummable numbers, while "Demons" is a masterstroke of brooding intent masked behind a deceptively catchy verse-chorus-verse structure.

Am Byth provides an interesting glimpse into the hyper-kinetic world of Welsh pop (circa the late '80s and early '90s) from which the Furries eventually sprang. The biggest drawback here lies in the variety of sources from which the material was culled -- everything from cassette to flexi-disc. Thus, you get the ultra-lo-fi, artifact-like fragment "Llosga Nhy I Lawr," scraped (and from the sound of it, grudgingly so) from a (many generations removed) cassette source, preceding the excellent "Ffarout" (from the album Hei Vidal), in which the textures and shading are both pristine and readily apparent.

Obviously, Am Byth can't be expected to stand alongside Songbook, but it does offer a handful of impressive moments: "Breichiau Hir" (which, according to an online Welsh-English translator, means "long arms") features delicately shimmering guitar and some beautiful harmonizing, while "Arwynebol Melyn" ("Superficial Yellow") sports a strong beat and confidently purposeful chord changes. "Hydref Yn Sacramento" boasts a mad stomp that ties in nicely with the song's infectious hooks.

Songbook may not collect all of the Furries' best tracks (it is a singles compilation, after all), but it still proves a solid addition to the group's catalog. Am Byth, by comparison, is understandably more scattershot; not only does it suffer from master sources of varying fidelity, it also reveals a band that hadn't quite found its musical footing. Both are essential additions for hardcore admirers, while curious newcomers are encouraged to pick up Songbook and, if sufficiently piqued, only then grab a copy of Am Byth to better understand the origins of the Furries' winningly inimitable sound.

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