Release Date: Nov 4, 2014
Record label: Turnstile
The fourth solo album by former Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys is inspired by the 18th-century explorer John Evans, who mapped the Missouri river in a vain search for a lost, Welsh-speaking American tribe. As well as this Evans-themed concept album, Rhys has made a film documenting his 2012 tour (gigs featured a PowerPoint presentation on the theme of Evans); a book – sorry, a "psychedelic historical travelogue"; and for those who crave further "immersion", an app. But all Rhys's extra-curricular multimedia has not distracted him from making an album full of wit, originality and indelible tunes, from the rumbling rockabilly of 100 Unread Messages, the Bette Davis Eyes-referencing Lost Tribes and the mournfully mesmerising title track.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, while other Britpop bands were busy feuding and putting more effort into their swagger than their songwriting, Super Furry Animals were quietly building one of the scene’s best catalogs. The Welsh five-piece walked to the beat of their own drum, offering swaths of blissed-out alien fuzz pop that straddled the line between archetypal verse-chorus tendencies and off-the-wall sonic escapades. The band became one of the most unpredictable acts to emerge from the rubble, and its charm was cemented in its own nonconformity—a trait that sustains itself to this day.
Legend has it that a Welsh prince called Madoc discovered the Americas in 1170, some three hundred years prior to Christopher Columbus. Legend also says Madoc and his men mated with Native Americans, thereby creating a Welsh Indian tribe whose existence belongs to myth. Such a tale is ideal for Gruff Rhys, the Welsh psychedelic pop artist who has specialized in eccentricity from his very first recording with Super Furry Animals.
Depending on which 20th-anniversary thinkpiece pops up in your Twitter feed at any given moment, Britpop was either a prideful display of national unity that provided the triumphant soundtrack to a post-Thatcher England, or a malignant, creatively stunting cancer that’s rotted contemporary U.K. rock music to its hollow core. But even if you lean toward the latter opinion, we can all agree on one positive outcome of the Blur-vs.-Oasis arms race: It injected Creation Records with enough cash for the label to roll the dice on Welsh wackaloons the Super Furry Animals, the rare rock band of the era that was more interested in exploring the future (and all the toxic mobile-phone radiation that comes with it) than repackaging the past.
It says something about Gruff Rhys's offbeat reputation that his latest project, a record celebrating the US travels of 18th-century Welsh explorer John Evans, to be accompanied by film, app and "psychedelic historical travelogue", will raise few eyebrows. Nor will the fact that he pulls it off beautifully. It doesn't hurt that the record contains some of his loveliest melodies in years, especially the wistful, string-draped Liberty (Is Where We'll Be).
It was three years ago, before the release of Hotel Shampoo, that Gruff Rhys said: “I still haven’t mastered narrative in song; I’d love to be able to pin that down. ” It’s a surprising thing for him to say, given that many of the songs he’s written over the last couple of decades are proper stories, even at their most offbeat. Nonetheless, he’s tried his best to achieve that goal through a number of projects; perhaps the most notable being his second Neon Neon album (a collaboration with Boom Bip), Praxis Makes Perfect, which focused on the life of leftwing Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.
Much like his film Separado! tracked Gruff Rhys’ Welsh ancestry to a break-off faction in Patagonia, American Interior (“Album. Book. Film. App.”) is a four-pronged project borne of Rhys’ efforts to follow the trail of a distant relative from Snowdonia to the US. In 1792, John Evans set out ….
After concept albums about a wealthy Italian Trotskyite, an eccentric car designer, and a film about a search for lost Welsh tribes in Argentina, the news that Gruff Rhys was to release an album about something as straightforward as an American explorer could be seen as something of a let down. Like most projects involving Gruff though, there’s more to American Interior than initial impressions suggest. For one, the explorer in question is John Evans, the man who first mapped out the Missouri river whilst searching for another of those lost Welsh tribes, and who Rhys has suggested might also be a distant relative of his.
Sometime Super Furry Animals frontman and Neon Neon mouthpiece, Gruff Rhys, uses his solo albums as a vehicle for travel and self-discovery. On his fourth venture, American Interior, it was not enough to produce only an album; Rhys has also filmed a documentary film, written a book, and developed an app. The motivation behind this undertaking is John Evans, a distant ancestor of Rhys' who left their native Wales in search of Welsh-speaking aboriginal North Americans.
Review Summary: Undoubtedly the biggest project he has embarked on so far.Being such a huge Super Furry Animals fan, I was really happy to at least hear their vocal/guitar player Gruff Rhys continue the shiny colored musical path paved by him and his band mates over the past two decades. As they have been on hiatus since 2010, he kept quite a busy schedule by releasing one record with Boom Bip under the Neon Neon moniker, a joint effort with Brazilian experimental artist Tony da Gattora, two movies and a book. Most important of all are the two solo LPs he dropped.
A rock Wes Anderson, Gruff Rhys has built a solid career on creating lush, immersive and fully-formed surrealist worlds outside of Super Furry Animals. With Neon Neon he’s made concept albums about notable entrepreneurs and rebels and acted them out live with theatre troupes, while his last solo album was named after the miniature hotel he made out of stolen hotel shampoo bottles. A prime pop nutter, then, and here’s his Guernica: an album written while following the journey of an 18th Century Welsh explorer called John Evans – who travelled the formative USA hunting the Madogwys, a mythical Welsh-speaking tribe of native Americans – with a small felt effigy of the great/deluded man himself.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. You wonder how the initial discussion went. Gruff Rhys, sonic adventurer, driver of blue techno tanks, chronicler of cult car designers and collector of hotel toiletries amongst his many talents, has an idea. That idea being heading to the States following the steps of a distant relative, who himself decided to leave for America two hundred years earlier to seek out the rumoured existence of a Welsh-speaking Native Indian tribe, The Madogwys.
Let’s get the negatives about Gruff Rhys’ new album out of the way first: “The Whether (Or Not)” has an unfortunately clunking bass guitar that’s practically impossible to not hear until the song pads out, while “The Swamp” is as melodically dirge-y as the song title would suggest. Meanwhile, the attempts at creating a holistic listening experience are appreciated, but not well-executed. This can be in little additions like the throwaway intro and outro to “The Whether (Or Not)” and “The Last Conquistador,” respectively, but also full-on songs like “Tiger’s Tale”, continuing the musical theme of “Year of the Dog,” which wasn’t much of a song to begin with (if you want a bipartite song with a pedal steel guitar, do yourself a favor and check out Pavement’s “Father to a Sister of Thought”).
A mind that needs absolutely constant nourishment in the form of continent-hopping identity crises and long-term philosophical examinations of what it means to be Welsh doesn't immediately seem like one ready to write a pop record. Such lofty, almost insolently silly projects have been a major focus for each of Gruff Rhys' albums. Whether he's building a hotel out of complimentary hotel toiletry bottles or driving across Patagonia to discover a long-lost songwriting relative, Rhys has always championed the overriding insanity of his various quests and ideas over the music itself.