Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Gruff Rhys - Hotel Shampoo & Interview

Label: Ovni (Turnstile)
Release date: 14/02/11

Hotel Shampoo is the 3rd solo album from Gruff Rhys and with the title itself being a supposed reference to Rhys's compulsive habit of taking and collecting the complementary shampoo bottles left in hotel rooms while being on tour (although this could just be an answer given by the record company to promote a slightly crazy mad genius mould they are trying to promote) its still a good title.

The album starts with the POP-tastic 'Shark Ridden Waters', a track that is already making waves (sorry) in a lot of people's play-lists including Miles Kane who recently named it in METRO as one of his favourite tracks of the moment. The album itself is a wonderful mixture piano ballads, psych pop, McCartney Beatles rather than Lennon, Brian Wilson arrangements as well as Crosby,Stills & Nash harmonies and vocal figures which especially show their influence on 'At The Heart Of Love' which almost sounds more like The Hollies than they do, splendid!

Each track that follows throughout the album has a minimum of 2 strong hooks and a wonderful chorus and tend to grind themselves into your mind after a single hearing like a beautiful day glow migraine. 'Honey All Over' and especially 'Sensations In The Dark' are proving that Gruff Rhys is currently hitting his creative stride and would be purple patch as his song writing has been raised a notch from his previous work and the Super Furry Animals records. Like all good albums it doesn't burn itself out or run out of steam too early 'Vitamin K' brings it down a gear tempo wise while at the same time keeping the quality level high. I can see an influence of Arthur Lee in the writing and his ideal that it doesn't matter how crazy and far out you get when recording a song or piece but to remember that the song is what matters ultimately and to never take your eye off the prize melodically. 'Take A Sentence' starts slowly with a horn figure in the book of Burt Bacharach but using it so delicately it doesn't over shadow the rest of the track or overstay it's welcome although with it clocking in just over 3 minutes like the majority of the tightly cropped songs here it doesn't give you time to get bored of it before moving on. With 13 tracks on the album it's easy to imagine that there would have to be some filler as such to pad it out and the first one to raise it's head would be the song 'Conservation Conversation' which sounds a bit too similar to previous songs, the lull doesn't last long as 'Sophie Softly' starts and brings the gold in sight once again although doesn't really detour from the main hook until the very end. 'Christopher Columbus' gives Rhys a chance to spread his wings creatively and shows a different side to his personality with it's fuzz riff lead guitar and pounding cut and shut drum track which keep it very interesting throughout as this is more Nuggets era garage R&B which is always welcome for me. What follows is 'Space Dust #2' and is a personal favourite of mine out of this collection of songs that present themselves here, with its beautiful male and female leads playing lines off each other sometimes echoing each other and sometimes replying with other lyrics. This is an example of what Brian Wilson would call a "pocket symphony" with its arrangement, production, strings, instrumentation, hooks and all clocking in under 2 minutes and 20 seconds is an achievement in itself, a gem indeed. The previously mentioned 'At The Heart Of Love' does indeed remind me of 'Our House' by Graham Nash although this isn't in any way a slight or negative comment on the track as personally being put up with an artist in this calibre can only be positive.

Recently there has been a re-emergence of bands looking to go back and make old sounding or "old skool" records that hark back to the late 60's early 70s but in most cases they tend to stick out like sore thumbs as being purpose made and fake as a Beatles wig, here I think Gruff Rhys has made a record that does remind me of music made in that era but not really any actual effects or production techniques used that make it particular "FAB" but more the quality of the music and song writing craft that has been presented. 'Patterns Of Love' is another song that stands it's ground and doesn't let the side down with key changes, whirling phaser Small Faces tricks and a strong vocal track although isn't as immediate as the following song 'If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)' which has to be climbing the invisible charts to one of the best songs of Rhys whole career with its quirky waltz tempo and beautiful slap back vocal echo. With its Bach like piano flourishes and steel guitar this is the point where the wave broke and shows the watermark to hit for Gruff Rhys when looking to put together his follow up, and yes folks he just about manages to break the 3 minute mark. The album concludes with 'Rubble Rubble' and although it sounds ok and doesn't offend the ear's in any respect it seems to be one of the 2-3 tracks that could have been snipped in the mixing stage without any ill effects to the whole package.

Out of the 3 solo album's Gruff Rhys now has under his belt (this being number 3) I would say its easily his best and although I'm sure The Super Furry Animals will record and tour again in the future this is definitely not a side project or something to be put out quietly online, his solo career is very real and very important indeed. One to watch? Too late, he's already here! Goo goo g' joob!

I spoke to Gruff about the new album and influences surrounding the record.

Gruff Rhys Interview
21st January 2011
Phone interview with Gruff Rhys
-Chris Lancaster

Q) Listening to the album pretty much on loop over the last week or so I feel that you've produced your strongest work to date. Did it feel any different making this album as opposed to your previous solo albums or The Super Furry Animals records?

A) Well I had a batch of songs at some period and I wanted this album to be a bit more refined than the last two solo records. The first album took a week, the second one took two weeks and I spent three weeks on this one so I wanted to make it more of an experience.

Q) Has there been any outside influences on the writing and overall sound of the album?

A) I suppose I wanted to cut myself off from contemporary pop culture and I think the songs were influenced by…. although nothing specific just by the stuff I grew up listening to. I wanted to try and write a Piano based album using early 70's records and influences.

Q) I heard more vocal influences on this album from people such as Brian Wilson and harmonies influenced by people like The Hollies coming through. Was that intentional or are they influential to that part of the sound?

A) Yes as well as some decadent west coast bands, heavyweight middle of the road records, and also Piano records like the first two Lou Reed solo records and John Cale’s solo records.

Q) I've been watching some of your live shows on youtube as an almost prefix to this album being released and they have been pretty stripped down affairs with just acoustic guitar, piano and some percussion. Have you had to accommodate these limitations and re-invent some of the arrangements so they differ from the album versions?

A) I was doing it really stripped down with acoustic where I do almost karaoke with the record although on the forthcoming tour I'm excited as a band called Y Niwl are coming on the tour as well. They are going to be helping me play my solo record live as well as performing their own set and hopefully we'll get the fullness of the record out there although it will have a kind of surf feel as well.

Q) When you’re writing a song do you ever feel that "this is a band song" or maybe "this is probably best kept for the solo album?"

A) Generally no, I mean songs just come into existence and I never really think of them being for a specific thing although with the 'Neon,Neon' record which was all about John DeLorean. We kind of sat down and wrote that as an album with a theme, it was an extreme way of working but exciting. Where as this record, some of the songs could have ended up anywhere really. We tried to record 'Take A Sentence' a few times before for the last solo record but it didn't really work out. Then there is a Super Furry Animals version with different lyrics that we tried although I think here I finally got it.

Q) Do you find it easier making a solo record in relation to a band one?

A) Yeah, although it's not necessary a good thing although it’s much easier. What’s great about making a band record is that it’s an adventure. No one individual can know how it’s going to sound until the end because five people making a racket, that can be an extremely exciting way of working. Where as making a solo record I usually know exactly how its going to sound and its just a matter of going into a studio and executing it, and that takes much less time. The exception was 'Shark Ridden Waters' where everything else was written in advanced that one just came into being accidentally in the studio.

Q) I saw you by chance in Amsterdam a few years back with Har Mar Superstar, do you like working with artists outside your typical genre of music to almost re-charge your creative batteries?

A) Well it’s an education to work with other people and see how they work and I've really enjoyed working with DJ's in the last few years. I suppose DJ's listen to more music than most people and they have some sort of understanding of the dark art of recording a good record. I tend to get pushed into unexpected territories with DJ's. I got to work a little bit with Dangermouse on a couple of things, and it was the same thing he's an amazing DJ, he can pick out the records that will keep people dancing for hours and I suppose this is what he then applies to his own records.

Q) You've managed to walk the fine line between experimental music as well as keeping one foot in the pop field. Do you always try and keep a commercial aspect to your work? Even when using studio trickery and loops and effects?

A) I suppose I’ve just got a kind of musical "sweet tooth" really, I've grown up listening to really melodic records. When I write songs the melody usually comes first and anything else is just detail. I do appreciate noise and texture as well but I just tend to write instinctively although it can sometimes be frustrating if a song becomes too predictable and I’m dealing in an idiom of predictable pop songs (laughs.) I always prefer when it’s something original, although it’s a fine line between making something original but that’s also good as well.

Q) Are there any bands or artists either new or old that you are currently listening to?

A) The record I’m listening to the most is Sonny & The Sunsets, from San Francisco. That was an extremely good record, just really great song writing. Well crafted songs but still sounding original and of its time.

Q) Are you happy with the final version of the album now its mixed, mastered and on route to the shelves?

A) Yes, there were a few surprises like 'Shark Ridden Waters' came out of nowhere when I was recording 'Christopher Columbus' and it went to a few different places that I didn't expect. I have been extremely happy with it, it’s my music comfort zone in a way as much as I'd like to re-invent the wheel, this album isn't the one for that, it’s just a really personal record.

Q) Another artist that is making waves at the moment is Miles Kane, I believe he played in the album adding some guitar?

A) Yeah he's an amazing guy, amazing surf guitarist as well, he plays on 'Space Dust #2' and he is just a guitar god (laughs)

Q) What’s next on the agenda for 2011?

A) I'm looking forward to touring the album and mixing between some solo gigs and others with Y Niwl, I haven't really been touring much in the last couple of years so it’s good to get out there. Other than that I have loads of other ideas for records and songs, god knows what'll happen as well as a Super Furry Animal record at some point although I don't know when.

Hotel Shampoo is released on 14th February…

special thanks to Stacey at The Art Of ...

'Originally posted on The 405'

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