Super Furry Animals Dark Days/Light Years

[Rough Trade; 2009]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: classic rock, psychedelia, Brit pop
Others: Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Wilco, ’80s McCartney

Sixteen years is a long time to be in a band. The Beatles made it through a decade before breaking up, and Steely Dan only managed eight years before they disbanded. That Super Furry Animals, a group hugely indebted to both of the above, have survived nearly longer than the combined spans of those bands says something — though it's unclear what, precisely, that is.

For close to two decades now, Super Furry Animals have walked the line between homage and parody, crafting songs that sound classically pop, but are punkish in spirit. To wear this comparison even further, Super Furry Animals sing as sweetly as Lennon-McCartney, but write as bitingly as Becker-Fagen. Once again, however, the number 16 looms; how long can a band work on variations of a theme? Or, more importantly: What purpose is there in pastiche when you've been around a stretch longer than any of your influences?

Diversity of influence might be the redundant answer to that second semi-rhetorical question. On their newest record, Dark Days/Light Years, they've traded in Steely Dan for Can, and Magical Mystery Tour for, um, McCartney II. Not that these substitutions are surprising, let alone altogether recent. At least since 2005's Lovekraft, SFA have been inching closer to Krautrock, and they’ve always dabbled with ’80s synth-pop. Dark Days/Light Years retains the sugary harmonies, but they're in shorter supply than usual.

First single "Inaugural Trams" is as sweet a love song as the band has ever written; it just happens to be (in typically anarchic SFA style) about urban development. The schoolboy way in which Gruff Rhys croons a line like "The streets of your house will never feel a recession" makes it sound like an utterly romantic sentiment. It isn't all absurdly lovey-dovey, however; the song begins and ends with a string of nonsensical German words (courtesy Franz Ferdinand's Nick McCarthy), which means that a potentially artful pop song ends up feeling like yet another cluttered goof on Kraftwerk.

Clutter and bloat are the biggest problems with Dark Days/Light Years. Too many songs bulge over the five-minute mark. In certain cases, like motorik closer "Pric," the groove is unfussy enough to prevent those minutes from dragging. But "Pric" also treads the same ground that Wilco covered with their own Kraut homage "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," and all 10 minutes of it end up feeling like a wash. "Cardiff In The Sun," clocking in at eight minutes, fares slightly better, with its lysergic/lethargic post-Smiley Smile fantasia. Meanwhile, the opening riff of "White Sock/Flip Flops" announces it as a blatant Pretzel Logic rip, and the song spends the next four and a half minutes spinning its wheels. No amount of hi-fi layering can mask the song's inertia.

For all the times Super Furry Animals smother a good idea, there are plenty of others where they get it just right. "Mt," sung by keyboardist Cian Ciaran, sounds like ELO's "Showdown" as played by Gary Glitter. It's an irresistible song, and one of the album's strongest. "Helium Hearts," sounding like a forgotten AM radio hit, is another highlight. And though they've done this sort of thing before, the cascading harmonies of "Llwiau Llachar" are still breathtaking.

Were this a debut album, it would be something of a revelation: indulgent, enthusiastic, and accomplished. Coming from a band that's nearing the two-decade mark, the impression is much the same. There's no lack of energy, even on the dullest of songs. Super Furry Animals deserve all the credit in the world for refusing to just phone it in. But what is the point of all the humor, all the Dadaist touches that insulate the album (and the band) from criticism? It feels, sadly, like a form of musical self-deprecation. The stakes are low for Super Furry Animals, with their dedicated fanbase and slim commercial prospects, and the music reflects this. They're a legitimately great band, but sometimes one can't help but escape the feeling that all of their dedication is in service of a joke. The Beatles, if not Steely Dan, famously bought into their own bullshit, which is something SFA should take to heart.

1. Crazy Naked Girls
2. Mt
3. Moped Eyes
4. Inagural Trams
5. Inconvenience
6. Cardiff In The Sun
7. The Very Best Of Neil Diamond
8. Helium Hearts
9. White Socks/Flip Flops
10. Where Do You Wanna Go?
11. Lliwiau Llachar
12. Pric

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