UK Oddballers Slosh Across The Pond

Sure, they're an enigma. But you'll love the way they perplex you.

For whatever reason, the star-making machinery has passed over the Super

Furry Animals, at least in the States. In their native Britain, they've

had hit singles, critical acclaim and a well-received new record,

Radiator. Not that it's new across the Atlantic -- they've had

their mitts on it since October '97 -- but it's just made its way to this

side of the pond, thanks to the indie label Flydaddy. (Act now: Initial

pressings also will contain an album of B-sides and singles, including

the UK chart topper "Man Don't Give a Fuck.")

Most of Radiator sounds slightly off-center. It's full of

surprises -- your guess as to what's coming around the corner is only

ever half right. Melodies are supremely hummable but never derivative.

Many of the ballads on the record have the familiar bombastic yet plaintive

quality of the best seventies power-rock -- obviously SFA have memorized

their older brothers' record collections -- but you never worry that you're

listening to a Mott the Hoople tribute band: they've grabbed the feel,

the sense of import common twenty years ago, and they've jettisoned the

throw-away emoting and pompousness.

But wait, what's '70s rock without pompousness? Okay, nothing, nothing at all,

and the success of Radiator is in its ability to pick out the

successful tactics of the past thirty years of pop and throw it all

together into something totally different: Fuck Tortoise -- Super Furry

Animals are Post-Rock.

Still, there are many reasons not to have brought out a record

stateside by the Super Furry Animals: They're offbeat. They don't sound

like Celine Dion or Puff Daddy. And hell, they're Welsh. But

Radiator is so overflowing with charm, it's ludicrous to let it

languish across the Atlantic while we sit and wallow in the Death of

Alternative and yearn for music that's neither overwrought nor shallow.

Some bands are self-consciously off-kilter. Just listen to a They Might

Be Giants record: Do they have to sing like that? Does every observation

have to be so pithy? Do those songs really need an accordion? Do they

have to try so hard to be strange?

Super Furry Animals, on the other hand, are eccentric to the marrow. They

aren't of the moment. That is to say, they're not of our moment. But

instead of being forward-thinking visionaries, they're just ahead of us,

looking back to see if we're catching up. Masters of the startling turn

of phrase, they say it best in the opening lyrics to "The International

Language of Screaming" (RealAudio excerpt): "It's not where you're from/ It's not where you're

at/ It's not where you've been/ It's where you're between."

Lyrically, everything on Radiator sounds as if it had been

translated from an alien language. Except for "Torra Fy Ngwallt Yn Hir,"

which is in Welsh.

Lead vocalist Gruff Rhys has a disarming delivery -- helped, no doubt,

by Welsh-accented vowels that are skewed just slightly from the

Merchant-Ivory English accents we're used to -- and his voice, though a

little thin, serves the songs perfectly, especially in his layered,

falsetto backgrounds.

The songs themselves are all of a piece -- the record has been well

sequenced into a definite progression, though, don't worry, it's not a

concept album. The sound is, on the whole, similar to that of the band's

debut, Fuzzy Logic, though perhaps a little more sophisticated.

There's deft use of a Rhodes on "Play it Cool"

(RealAudio excerpt), for example, and "Mountain

People" breaks down into wicked electronic, rhythmic chaos before closing

the record.

Still, like its predecessor, Radiator is mostly a guitar-pop

record, full of disarming hooks and jaunty tempos. The catchiest song is

sung in Welsh (the aforementioned "Torra Fy Ngwallt Yn Hir"), but you'll

ache to sing along, even if you're unable to pronounce the ungodly number

of consonants. It's easier to accompany the band on the rest of the

album, and there are plenty of chances. "Hermann Loves Pauline"

(RealAudio excerpt) has tons

of Mott jaunt alongside a Dr. Dre keyboard line -- it's sort of an

inner-city pub rocker.

Immediately following is "Chupacabras" which is about a goat-eating bat.

It sounds precious and false, but these guys are utterly genuine throughout

the one-and-a-half minute pop ditty. You almost wish they'd given you

something less flip to hold onto.

There's some mystery in the songs of the Super Furry Animals, but it's

not "what?" so much as "why?" Who'd buy Fionna Apple if "Criminal" was

called "Goat-Eating Bat"? This quirkiness apparently goes over better in

the UK than it does here. Maybe we should give it a try, though. Much of

U.S. pop music seems so expected. Maybe we'd all be well served by

spending some time in front of the Radiator.