It‘s easy when you know how
To get along without Biff! Bang! Pow!
–Super Furry Animals,
“Juxtapozed With U”
Today, the Board of Directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the minute hand of the “Doomsday Clock,” the symbol of nuclear danger, from nine to seven minutes to midnight, the same setting at which the clock debuted 55 years ago. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, this is the third time the hand has moved forward.
February 27, 2002
We all know these are not good times. We are at the eye of the storm, waiting for the other bomb to drop. Turns out poli-sci egghead game theory doesn’t account for the afterlife‘s 72 virgins. Gee, suicide bombers don’t figure into deterrence strategies. Meanwhile, we‘ve got a nutjob Israeli prime minister fat man with an arsenal of 100 nukes and an itchy revenge finger playing brinkmanship, congenitally incapable of thinking beyond the tit-tat exchange. India and Pakistan are not exactly throwing kebab block parties. The Bush administration has withdrawn the U.S. from long-standing international arms treaties and is actually floating the ideas of both tactical atomic-weapon strikes and 30,000 American kids fighting — for whom? R. Kelly? Girls Gone Wild producers? NAMBLA and its apparent religious wing, the Catholic Church? For Gomorrah, I guess — against Saddam in the Stepmother of All Wars. It’s 11:53 p.m. on the Doomsday Clock: Do you know where your (soon-to-be-vaporized) children are?
Somebody has to love us, if only to show us that love across borders is still possible in this blood-soaked world. Why not some stoner genius musicians from Wales who call themselves Super Furry Animals? They seem up to it. Look at this thing they (and their peace-operative buddies over in the film and computer departments) have made during the last two years, this Rings Around the World project. If you buy it on CD, you get the full 13-cut album and a bonus CD of seven more songs, each arguably as good as the tunes on the proper album. If you buy it on DVD, you get inventive, non-band performance videos for 18 songs, in 5.1 Surround Sound, made by hotstuff indie filmmakers; you get 16 radical audio remixes, made by people like Kid606, the High Llamas, Atmos and SFA themselves; you get stuff I still haven‘t got to yet. You get an awful lot, because these guys are fundamentally generous. Because these guys spent their Sony R&D money well. Because creatively, these guys are at the very top of their game.
Their game being, for the moment, some kind of cosmopolitan pop music. Cosmopop. Melodic, passionate, sharp music that comes from all over, that embraces everyone. Like, loosely, the Beatles folding strings and sitar into their sound, or performing “All You Need Is Love” on live TV globecast, or making the Yellow Submarine (the song and the film). Like “International FeelLe Feel Internacionale” on Todd Rundgren’s A Wizard, A True Star. (And, of course, the trans-decade connections are all there if you want them: The Super Furrys remixed Beatles effluvia a couple of years ago; Paul rhythmically chews his and Linda‘s beloved veggies somewhere in Rings’ “Receptacle for the Respectable.” The SFA album was mostly recorded in Woodstock at Bearsville studio; Rundgren‘s album was released on Bearsville Records; the opening synth squigglery of Rundgren’s “International Feel” is referenced on the Furrys‘ “It’s Not the End of the World?” and DVD-menu soundtrack, respectively. Let the trainspotting continue . . .)
Like the Brazilian psychedelic-folk troupe Os Mutantes‘ three late-’60s albums — Day-Glo popjoy and pointed fingers, humor and playfulness, righteous accusations and counsel on how to get out of this mess we‘re in — Rings is a guide to the complex for the perplexed. The whole situ is here: Clinton’s ejaculate destination, Yeltsin‘s drinking, seas merging cuz of global warming, Seoul suburbia, Tetsuo II and Doris Day, wormholes and Christians, presidential suites and meteoric stones, famine and extreme sports, uncloned sheep and post-water. But this isn’t mere lyrical wackiness or pointless overload; there‘s something deeper here: There’s the singing — which really is extraordinary, from the leads to all the three-part harmonies. There are the string and horn arrangements. There‘s the headgear-friendly stereoscopic mix. There’re the strong pop melodies, the immaculately constructed verse-chorus-bridge songs, the two-minute rockers, the instrumental interludes, the three-part, seven-minute epics that end in extended techno freak-outs.
And there are the words. On the acoustic-orchestral hum-along “No! Sympathy,” Gruff Rhys sings, “Don‘t try me for sympathyI don’t feel sorry for theeYou deserve to die.” Next track, the gorgeous vocoder-samba “Juxtapozed With U,” Gruff delivers the answer lyric: “You‘ve got to tolerateAll those people that you hateI’m not in love with youBut I won‘t hold that against you.” Words to live in peace by. Do you have your hearing aid in, Ariel?
No matter how good it sounds, the best way to experience Rings is in front of whatever makeshift home-entertainment theater you can rustle up. As an astute friend pointed out, the Rings DVD will really work for people who miss those Pink Floyd and Radiohead Laserium shows at the Griffith Park Observatory, but for the rest of you it’s fun viewing as a series of music videos. These are midnight movies — miniature and grandiose, animated and live-action, psychedelic and documentalist, erotic and violent, whimsical and deadly serious — for an 11:53 p.m. world:
A color-dappled screen breaks apart; a stenciled girl falls sideways above and across the planet, a luscious painted sky sliding by in the background; a Jesus figure gets a drink of water; a 10-foot-tall, 15-foot-wide cue card walks the crowded streets, looking for love; an airplane negotiates a PythonYellow Submarine media-sky of cigars, detergent, vodka and bombs. On the wonderfully optimistic pro-aging song “It‘s Not the End of the World?” (lyrics: “We could live it largeBecause we’re only old onceLet‘s make a differenceTurn all the hate in the worldInto a mockingbirdMake it fly awayYet as our hair turns grayEverything is far from A-OKAt least it’s not the end of the world”), we get a mushroom-cloud highlight reel; on the musically gorgeous, lyrically moody “Shoot Doris Day,” we get an incredible National Geographic–esque videologue shot in urban India by the Super Furrys‘ barber.
Of course, there are a couple of duds — the anti-Christian text-rantfire-loop of “Run! Christian! Run!” is interesting once but never again (although the Pete Ellis Dodge–ish sing-along bouncing-bubble guide on the chorus is pretty funny), and the floating glaciers of the closing “Fragile Happiness” are a bit more underwhelming than anyone could reasonably have intended. But the rest is great, especially the film for the funk instrolude “(A) Touch Sensitive,” which onscreen is essentially friendly erotica, a sequence of psychedelic-tinged computer animations that, according to the DVD’s Web site, “illuminates the arrival of the time lord. In the strobing darkness he stumbles toward the humble house. Inside the woman who is to become the mother of Merlin, sorcerer of myth and legend, senses the strange presence and flees the apparent demon. The Doctor Who, the ‘demon’ of Tom Baker shape, enters. To her pagan senses the benevolent force seems otherworldly and dark . . . Yet when she feels his sensitive touch . . . Lost in time and lust, the pair join in epic and legendary union, neither knowing their offspring shall guide the coming great kings of old Albion.”
Just in time.
Super Furry Animals perform at El Rey, Tuesday, May 7.