Gruff Rhys, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
Wednesday 19 October 2011
If Gruff Rhys wasn't the leader of Britain's premier freak-out pop collective, Super Furry Animals, or if he was an occasional exotic US visitor, his solo sounds would inspire cult reverence. Of course, it's all one to Rhys: the Super Furries, the collaborative concept album about 1980s DeLorean cars as Neon Neon, the record of rough psychedelic mantras with the sometime Sao Paolo video repairman Tony Da Gatorra, and a feature documentary about the Welsh in Patagonia. As with his friend Damon Albarn, this isn't a career so much as a freewheeling exploration.
The high, hilarious concept behind his third solo album, Hotel Shampoo, is that Rhys, dazzled by the pilferable wonders available when he first toured, obsessively collected hotel toiletries, until he had enough for a (recently exhibited) sculpture. We are welcomed to this latest world tonight when the PA announces the Hotel Shampoo chain's 25-hour telepathic room service. Rhys's keyboard doubles as reception.
More striking are the back-projections illustrating Rhys's visions: slow-motion Light Brigade charges, looped scenes of social embarrassment from 1970s soft porn and, during the swaggering pop of "Sensations in the Dark", blurred suggestions of riot and orgy. The bassist peers up at the footage of crash-test dummies during "Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru", as intrigued as anyone. It's firmly in the 1960s tradition of the psychedelic light show, as is music seemingly conjured from a Celtic California.
Rhys's distinctive speaking voice of abstracted wryness, halting then tumbling through English, which is his second language, is matched by music which never batters you with passion. Sometimes, as on "Honey All Over", songs concern sun-kissed femme fatales, in a bucolic, lysergic Welsh version of film noir. "If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)" is one of several minor-key ballads. Heart always in the right place, Rhys dubs the jam before the train-horn clatter of "Cycle of Violence", "'Requiem for the NHS' – unfortunately." Then, during "Shark Ridden Waters", he plays his keyboard like a Chinaman in a Wild West saloon. The tripped-out Arthur Hailey skyjack epic "Skylon!" – so long Rhys recaps in the middle – is a suitably unhinged encore. The tunes are too diffuse to overwhelm or transport, as the Super Furries might. Instead, these are intriguing byways in Rhys's pop travels.
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