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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2005 09:23 pm

A slump so sublime

Love Kraft is a good album by SFA's standards

Super Furry Animals Love Kraft (XL)
Love Kraft, the Super Furry Animals’ seventh studio album, begins with a splash — literally. It’s the sound of guitarist Huw “Bunf” Bunford diving into a swimming pool, and, given the fact that there are no accidents in the SFA cosmology, the effect would seem to serve some kind of symbolic function, to augur a baptism or a rebirth, if you will, or at least a clean start. Indeed, more than a decade into the Welsh quintet’s career, some noteworthy changes have taken place: The new album features songs written and sung by four of the five Furries, instead of just frontman/chief songwriter Gruff Rhys; it was recorded in the Catalonia region of Spain and mixed in Rio, Brazil; and unofficial member/secret weapon Sean O’Hagan (High Llamas, Stereolab) contributes plump, sumptuous string arrangements to half of the songs. Despite these major and minor differences, Love Kraft isn’t a departure so much as a plateau, the sound of a wildly innovative, prodigiously imaginative band luxuriating in a style that it’s already perfected. There’s no floundering about for fresh purchase, no energy-sapping thrashing or grasping at new gimmicks. To call it coasting is, perhaps, unfair — where else could SFA possibly go after the lunatic, over-the-top brilliance of 2001’s Rings Around the World? — but not entirely inaccurate. No matter how many Brazilian bug samples and kidnapped-racehorse allusions and blue-eyed-soul/samba/psych-funk/Impressionist piano/Intelligent Dance Music/AOR/bubblegum fusions that SFA serves up to its devoted fanbase, the band has already tried so many new things that further progress seems impossible. Nevertheless, Love Kraft is a good album by SFA standards and a great one by the standards of most other rock bands. Although Bunford’s “Back on a Roll,” a dopey Wingsian shuffle, might be the most inessential song that the group has ever committed to tape, it’s pleasant enough in its please-burn-the-rhyming-dictionary-now kind of way. Ditto for the good-natured waltz “The Horn” and its willfully ditsy “go with the flow” mantra of a chorus, which seems like both a parody and a celebration of ’70s feel-good rock. And if Rhys’ trademark lefty politics are less pronounced than on 2003’s Phantom Power, there’s still plenty of cryptic agitprop for the faithful, from the satiric wingnut sci-fi fantasy “Lazer Beam,” the album’s first single, to the soulful pro-choice parable “Ohio Heat” and the psych-pop elegy “Frequency,” with its melting ice caps, cloned babies, bland burger franchises, and “whipped, gagged, and drugged” jury. Mario Caldato Jr., who produced the Beastie Boys, as well as Phantom Power, has an uncanny gift for harnessing SFA’s symphonic proclivities into a form that’s pleasingly dense without being overwhelming, and O’Hagan’s string arrangements have never been more swoon-worthy than on the George Gershwin-meets-Steely Dan ballad “Walk You Home.”  Rhys provides a telling quotation in Love Kraft’s press release: “The world is so ridiculously dark at the moment, when you don’t know where to start politically it’s sometimes easier to become inward looking or to enter the world of the imagination.” Fair enough. Sometimes a little mellow Catalonian sunshine and blissful R&R is just what a band needs to rejuvenate itself, especially one that’s been as prolific and consistent as SFA. If Rhys and the boys are treading water, if they’re indulging in a few Ringoish novelty numbers either in the spirit of democracy or in the dearth of new ideas, if they’re just trying to relax and enjoy their absolute bad-assitude after a decade of ground-breaking experimentalism, who but a fault-finding killjoy could complain? If Love Kraft represents a slump, seldom has a slump sounded so sublime.
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