Despite being home to two of the 20th century's most talented artists, John Cale and Tom Jones (duh), Wales' place in Great Britain's pop pantheon is decidedly small. And though Stereophonics and Manic Street Preachers were bit players in the Britpop movement of the mid-to-late '90s, the best Welsh band by far (sorry Charlotte Church) is Super Furry Animals.
True, being the best band from Wales is a bit like being the best band from Idaho (yes, Built to Spill, that's you). Still, SFA have made seven proper albums, and not one of them has been anything resembling bad. They consistently produce dazzling and innovative records, filled with touches of electronica, soul, punk, psych, and pop—and they do so with a playful air that prevents such prog ambitions from sounding like, well, prog ambitions. These aims, coupled with a general lack of pomposity, set the band apart from their one-dimensional trad-rock contemporaries when they emerged a decade ago—and their albums continue to be exciting and fresh, long after many of their original peers have faded.
After two all-Welsh EPs, Gruff Rhys (vocals), Dafydd Ieuan (drums), Cian Ciaran (keys), Guto Pryce (bass), and Huw Bunford (guitars) released their proper all-English debut in 1996, Fuzzy Logic. The album garnered widespread praise at the height of Britpop—a scene in which they were never card-carrying/Union Jack-waving members. "God! Show Me Magic" and "Bad Behaviour" sound a bit like a slightly more competent New York Dolls, while the instantly likeable "Something 4 the Weekend," is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of Ecstasy culture. With lines like, "Oh my God! We're getting hippy-dippy," it would be easy to laugh off the tune, were it not catchier than anything on Blur's Parklife.
Another near joke, were it not for the excellence of the songs within, is 2000's all-Welsh full-length, Mwng. As lovely as it is unintelligible (to those who don't speak Welsh), it was followed up by an overtly commercial double album, 2001's Rings Around the World. That album's standout, "Juxtaposed With U," is a fitting example of SFA's penchant for beauty and mischief. Over a gorgeous, string-laden soul melody, the band's wry sense of humor transforms what could have been an unnecessary Marvin Gaye update to a chorus that captures our cynical, post-millennium outlook: "You've got to tolerate all the people that you hate."
Their latest, Love Kraft, is an accomplished mix of low-concept Pink Floyd and blue-eyed soul—with many of the songs soaked in rich, orchestrated arrangements, reminiscent of the ones that gave Serge Gainsbourg's perverse mutterings such libidinous oomph. Opener "Zoom!" builds to a heavy-psych groove, with enough cacophony and seduction that its chorus, "I can't get enough of it, kiss me with apocalypse," serves as the perfect lyric to complement the album's pervasive themes of sex and death. Though the dub flourishes at the beginning of "Lazer Beam" may momentarily startle a listener, SFA have done well to tame their eccentricities—or at least, keep their eccentricities consistent for an entire album. The piano and acoustic textures throughout Love Kraft give the album a warm, organic sound. Yet, if this is the band trying to sound "natural," their inescapable lush arrangements and spot-on harmonies have once again prefixed "super" to that ambition.