Their music is a throwback to the '70s and earlier -- all pretty harmonies and dreamy strings and expansive, meandering song construction -- and yet they've laced it throughout with studio trickery, updating the Beach Boys' sound with Beck's sensibility. Because in the Age of Irony, or Post-Irony, or whatever age we're in (maybe Tom Ridge needs to put together a color chart for that), you can't make a Beach Boys album -- pure Beach Boys, no tricks -- and be taken seriously. You just can't. The rules, as the Super Furry Animals know, have changed.
Same thing with their lyrics. The Super Furrys have some serious concerns about the way we humans have changed our planet, both perceptibly and otherwise, but they don't hammer you over the head the way, say, Midnight Oil used to. They care; it's how they care that's different.
"Our songs come from a perspective of the victim rather than the campaigner," says Super Furry singer Gruff Rhyss, speaking via cell phone from somewhere on the shores of Lake Michigan. Rhyss and his bandmates have just arrived from their native Wales for an American tour, set to begin a day later in "Meenie-pless," as he calls Minnesota's biggest city. "We just mark our time here, you know? We just sing about what surrounds us and try and make sense of it all. We sing from a position of victims, rather than saviors."
This may be what keeps them from overbearing ham-fistedness -- what keeps the Super Furrys from morphing into some sort of sanctimonious ensemble version of Sting. Not that Rhyss is worried about that.
"I think it's highly unlikely," he says, in a nearly impenetrable Welsh brogue, before mulling it over for a moment. "Ehh, I don't know. I'll ask Bunf [guitarist Huw Bunford, hovering nearby]. Bunf, do we worry about becoming the next Sting?"
"Fucking yes," comes Bunford's response, away from the phone. "I do. Why?"
"Yeah, we do," says Rhyss, changing his mind. "We worry very much. It's a very good question. We have to be very aware of not becoming the new Sting."
Well, no, they don't, either. Jokes aside, the Super Furry Animals are hardly limousine (or Jaguar) liberals. Take "Alternate Route to Vulcan Street," the opener from the band's fifth full-length, Rings Around the World, released to wild acclaim last year in the U.K. and to a more muted buzz Stateside earlier this year. "Vulcan Street" is Rhyss's take on global warming -- the "impending deluge," as he calls it -- but rather than being awkward or too earnest, Rhyss's lyrics are exaggerated and, well, odd: "Sometimes I ponder/What if the Caspian Sea should merger/Over my shoulder/With Irish lakes and Seoul suburbia/Abandon ship!" And then there's the album's title track, about "visualizing all the circles of crrep around the earth," says Rhyss. "You know, all the mobile phone conversations that we're breathing in. All the pollution, all the detritus. All the radio, all the TV signals. If we could visualize all of these, I suppose Earth would have all these circles around it, like Saturn."
And some of those circles, of course, would be provided by the Super Furry Animals themselves.
"Yeah, well, it's a huge contradiction," Rhyss says. "We have a sort of love-and-hate relationship with technology, you know? We like to celebrate technology, and in our songs we celebrate information technology, and we also criticize it. We also realize that, while it's amazing that I can speak to you over the phone now, on a cell phone, it's also probably frying my brain at the same time."
Yeah, odds are good. Still, whatever taint modern technology may have laid on the Super Furrys' world, it doesn't taint Rings. "It's our ode to sort of classic, melodic music," says Rhyss.
In fact, it's exactly that. Rings plays like a day-trip through the classic rock (and classic pop) canon, with a Beatles track here --"Receptacle for the Respectable," complete with hand-claps and Sir Paul himself, chomping carrots and celery in time to the music -- and a Bacharach track there -- "Juxtapozed With U," sort of a "Get Together" updated for the new millennium: "You've got to tolerate/ All those people that you hate/I'm not in love with you, but I won't hold that against you." And everything that's not otherwise nailed down gets bathed in sunny harmonies straight from the aforementioned Beach Boys, without whom a Rings Around the World review isn't possible. If it all sounds terribly derivative to you, well, it is.
"It's a very derivative album," Rhyss concedes. "We were trying to get through a lot of our classic rock obsessions on [Rings], and it turns out it's all for bands beginning with B. So there's a really strong influence from the Beach Boys, and the Beatles, and Badfinger, and the Byrds, and Burt Bacharach, and . . . Badfinger. Did I say that?"
"And Boston. Hopefully by the next album, we can move on to C. At least. Or even make a Super Furry Animals album. That's our goal, to filter out all our influences, eventually."
Leaving, in the end, nothing but the Super Furry Animals.
"Essence of Super Furry."
And what does that smell like?
"I wouldn't like to know about it. I'd be very scared."