Let us remember the compilation. It seems that over the past four or five years the compilation has been defined by the always fresh, always relevant Now That’s What I Call Music series. When I stopped selling CDs in 2005, the nineteenth volume in the series was due to be released. At present the series has reached volume 41. I am not trying to speak poorly of musical compilations. I think there are many quality comps that are available. Soundtracks may very well be the music featured in films, but the best ones have the feel of a compilation — various music and styles coming together, all great. The best compilation is one that ends up spinning you out into many differing directions, trying to get your hands on the music of all the great artists you are just hearing for the first time. For me, one such comp in 1996 assembled some of the finer musical performances from the essential UK music show, Later. . . With Jools Holland. Capitalizing on the surge in “Brit Pop,” Island Records released a CD called Brit Beat and planned on producing a total of 5 CDs of music from the show. Only two were ever released, this first set and another called Evening Beat. I still have the Brit Beat disc. It spun me into many different directions and exposed my ears to a lot of artists I hadn’t been previously familiar with. One of these groups was a Welsh group that had signed to Creation Records, the Super Furry Animals. The track on the CD was released on their debut (English-speaking) CD, Fuzzy Logic, and is called “If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You.”
The band has been on my mind lately for two reasons. A recent trip downstate was accompanied by my bringing along the band’s third LP as well as one of their EP releases. The LP is Guerilla, and I had forgotten just how strong the record is. From the opening strains of “Check It Out,” the CD just cooks with an energy and a freshness that still feels authentic so many years later. The first song on the disc I ever got stuck on is “Wherever I Lay My Phone (That’s My Home).” Folks, this is a song that was recorded in mid-1998. Did you have a cell phone then? A mobile phone? No. They hadn’t taken America in their grip at that point in history. But they were enough of a cultural thing in the UK to be mentioned in a song. So this song with its dancey bits and bobs really drew me into their catalog and I bought as much as possible from the band. But it took me years really to appreciate the band’s work, scope, and creativity. As I listened to Guerilla again I just marveled at how great it sounded, how it gently drifted from one song to the next, how it all fit and felt right. Some songs have odd sounds, like steel drums, in the mix. Others move along at a peaceful pace, like an exhalation of breath from your speakers. The band set out to make a “pop” disc and I honestly still cannot think of a pop album as diverse as the sounds of this one.
I went to the wall at home, found the catalog and gave the music another listen. It was interesting to see if I thought that their other works held up quite as well as Guerilla. Fuzzy Logic was good, with a few tracks I remember being standouts holding up very well to my current ears and taste. The songs I still gravitated towards included the very first song by the band I knew, “If You Don’t Want Me to Destroy You,” and I do hold a fondness for the opening track “God, Show Me Magic.”
Next was the band’s second disc, Radiator. At the time, in the span of the catalog, this was my least favorite disc by the band when I first picked it up. And it was one of the most fun discs to rediscover. The cover depicts an animated creature walking down the street, the first move from a photographic reality to an animated one. The Welsh artist Pete Fowler would go on over the next few years to add to the aura of the band, designing specific “monsters” to adorn their stage, singles and LPs. I love the plastic brightness of Fowler’s work and his work with the band really makes me feel like a de facto band member. Radiator is a strong CD, and when you peruse the lyric book you see the wild and interesting topics the band sings about. Two songs stand out to me, the second and third singles released. The second single is called “The International Language of Screaming” and it just is catchy, fun, and filled with the fun sounds that hook your brain and stick in your brain for years. High praise for a song that is only 2:16 long. Listen for the big WOOOO, which is so great it may, just may, supplant Ric Flair as the greatest WOOO of all time.
The second song, third single, is called “Play It Cool.” I love this song, and placed it on a mix CD called Summer Sun. The song is super super catchy and it feels like a full length, traditional song — something that the band doesn’t always feel like they do on record. The video for the song is notable as it feels so dated! The band gets together to play FIFA Football on the PLAYSTATION and all become characters within the game. The graphics and such just make the video seem antiquated. It also is striking to me that while music stripped of era can sound timeless, a video of then-modern technology will be instantly more dated. Listen to the melody and listen to the handclaps. Man, those are some great handclaps.
The disc the Super Furry Animals followed up Guerilla with is great. I’ll just say it now. It is great and I have very, very specific timeframe associations with the disc, Drawing Rings Around The World. It came out in 2001 and I remember listening to the music again and again that summer. I was on vacation in Benzie County (where I now spend lots of time every week) and listening to this disc over and over. The song “Juxtaposed With You” contains the line, “I’m not in love with you/but I won’t hold that against you.” That line meant a lot to me that trip, for reasons best left to my memories. The disc was accompanied on release by a DVD surround sound version with accompanying visuals. I own it, or at least used to, and have watched it a few times. As an event it isn’t much, but at the time it was fun to fire up the surround sound system my then-roommate had and watch and listen. This LP is strong, with one great song after another, any and all of which function both on their own as individual songs and as part of the whole of the LP. The line “you expose the film in me” from the title track says so much, and yet it is a line that will forever be empty as the future will wonder just what film was.
The surround sound gimmick would continue on the next release, Phantom Power. I like the disc, but I don’t remember it that much. Even giving it a re-listen in the car didn’t trigger any strong emotions or attachment. It is just a disc, a good disc, but not one that sticks in my memory. The only song that does is the closing track, “Slow Life.” I’m drawn to the sound of that song, the way it sounds and the way it feels. And with that last LP I stopped listening to the band. Not out of disgust, or anything stronger than apathy. My ears grew closed to nearly everything, and when the band next issued a CD I was out of work, in school and unable to lay hands on the music. I didn’t cry, I didn’t even notice. I just moved on.
As part of my adventure back in time I did spend some time with two of the band’s stand-alone singles. The first is the Ice Hockey Hair EP, and the second is the band’s greatest moment (I think) the non-album release “The Man Don’t Give A Fuck.” On the former a sample from Burning Spear forms the basis for a song “Smokin’” that bubbles and moves and grooves. The whole EP is great and the “Smokin’” reprieve at the end of the single is just so much fun. The latter track is also built around a sample, that of Steely Dan’s 1973 song “Showbiz Kids.” For time, it was said, this held the record for a single with the most amount of profanity, using the F word 50 times in the song. Whatever the case it is great, it builds and builds and there is a frenetic craziness and happiness in the song that just makes you smile. There is also something about the song, about any song with that much cussing, that brings out your smile. It is almost like being a child again and discovering the illicit and secret nature of dirty words. They make you laugh, the make you think, they empower you the first time you use them and then they knock you right down when they are used against you. The power of language comes through and something about the song always makes me think. And then smile. A few years ago the band released a 23-minute LIVE version of this track. I need to find that and dig it up and give it a listen. Could it be as great as the original? We’ll see!
Any non-American band really brings out my inner linguist. I’ve always been fascinated by accents, the sounds of our voices and how they are all the same yet all different. There are vague recollections of hearing an English accent for the first time (Terrence Stamp aka General ZOD comes to mind) and just marveling at the difference. As I reach middle age I find myself less interested in accents and more interested in vowels. Think about it. Where does the root sound of a word come from, forgetting about morphemes and graphemes and such. Maybe it’s not all the vowels, maybe I’m more intrigued with A’s. Those are the sounds that really stand out when one first encounters a foreign accent (and to be fair, does this boundary even exist anymore? With YouTube, the Internet, BBC America, friggin’ Downton Abbey, etc., etc., etc., do the children of today, the future of tomorrow, have such strong reactions to accents? They’re everywhere). Except with the Furries. They make all the vowels sound individual and unique. Take the song of theirs I first fell into, “If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You.” Say it out loud, right now. Notice the feeling of your tongue in your mouth, the way it feels to say that simple sentence. Now say and stress the N’s in the song. Feel the difference? Can you hear the difference?? Griff Rhys sings in both English and Welsh, but I read that his primary language is Welsh and that he is always processing the two languages in his head. This is what gives his conversations rich pauses in which he can address his thoughts and put them in the correct language. In the end that is what stuck with me ,and what I took away from my dance with this music from my past 15 years. By rediscovering this music it sort of shows me where my mind is at in my life right now. Inner linguist? Really? Really.
The sound of the voice and the sound of the music and the sound of the voice AND music has always been as big an appeal to me as the music itself. Having been through more education since I first heard these songs that new education, or forms of it, opened my mind to think about these songs and their sounds in a wildly different way. I almost feel like at this stage in my life the next 15 years will be more about rediscovery than discovery. Normally I think that would have made me feel sad, but it doesn’t. Rather it fills me with anticipation and excitement the likes of which I hadn’t felt since flipping my fifth grade teacher the bird behind her back. That thrill, that rush, that feeling is still there, and I just need to find it in different ways now. Wonder what I should listen to next?
Mike Vincent is a teacher, dreamer, grouch, and runner. He lives in northern Michigan and his favorite Beatle is George Harrison.