Super Furry Animals are a mischievous lot. Having marked the universe with their tech-pop grandeur for 15 years, they must now keep the world wondering where their music will pop up next and in what form. For their new album, Hey Venus! (Rough Trade), the Welsh quintet maintain their love of vast, Donald Fagenesque noodling but have stripped down into a craftily introspective niche. In keeping with their new sound, they have a secret weapon in the studio, and it isn't bleeding-edge sonic wizardry or Timbaland at the desk. It's a dulcimer a hammer dulcimer, to be exact, and it's wielded on some songs with as much aplomb as any siren, blip, or squawk that's graced any of their previous seven full-lengths. What gives? "For some reason, [the album] has a 'band playing in a room' kind of mood," lead vocalist Gruff Rhys offers simply, speaking on the phone from Cardiff, Wales, in early January. "Nobody brought any samplers to the recording sessions."
Super Furry Animals emerged from the Welsh capital city amid a wave of other acts, effectively marking a movement that included bands like Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and Catatonia. The core members of the group had originally come together as a techno outfit a background that set them apart from their contemporaries. The group's first album, Fuzzy Logic (Creation, 1996), saw the combo establish its mastery of cheekily strident pop tunes. Its next release, Radiator (Flydaddy, 1997), upped the ante with an inventive melodic complexity that the Furries had obviously already mastered.
The band made its mark by continuing to issue fearless, originally crafted indie rock that stemmed at least in part from Rhys's schizoid musical background: he was in a jangle-pop band called Emily before moving on to noise ensemble Ffa Coffi Pawb. The Furries' next release, Guerilla (Flydaddy, 1999), is a densely layered technorock symphony that ranges between the cheeky blips of songs like "Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home)" and the introspective balladeering of tracks like "Fire in My Heart." Each disc since has been notable for a particular reason, whether it's an all-Welsh double album (2000's Mwng [Placid Casual]), a special DVD with a video crafted for each song (2001's Rings around the World [Sony]), or the quirky explorations into spaced-out country rock and überharmonic ruminating on recent albums Phantom Power (XL, 2003) and Love Kraft (XL/Beggars, 2005). Hey Venus!, Rhys explains, is partially based on the mellow mood he described earlier in our conversation. "In the past I wrote all the lyrics, and then the last two years [the band has become] more confident and has started to bring complete songs to the soup." He pauses, then confirms, "I suppose this was a songwriting kind of record."
Which brings us back to that dulcimer, most prominently used on the bittersweet "Carbon Dating." It's a signature Furries multicultural hash: a kaleidoscopic ballad that begins as a carnival waltz before morphing into MotownmeetsEnnio Morricone doo-wop surrealism. Rhys credits its composer, keyboard player Cian Ciárán, calling it "the most beautiful song on the record" before explaining that Ciárán also played dulcimer on it. Demonstrating the band's virtuosity and playfulness in the studio, the dulcimer is showcased like a sonic effect throughout Hey Venus!, echoing like a ghost as all other instruments drop away. Lest fans think the Furries have gone fully folk, Rhys laughs and explains the instrument's lure: "Dulcimer for us represents a lot of the old Michael Caine cold war spy movies. He always had [it] going on in his soundtracks."
Cosmopolitan kitsch aside, Hey Venus! runs an emotional and socioeconomic gamut, albeit with a wink of the eye. On the Shangri-Las throwback "Runaway," lovers flee each other while wistfully recalling the other's "banking details." (The video is an '80s-inspired romp with Matt Berry of United Kingdom comedy series The Mighty Boosh.) There are also moments of quintessential SFA lyrical humor, as on "Baby Ate My Eightball," which offers the apologetic understatement of the decade, "See you on the other side / Sorry to cut your life so short." Equally acerbic is the track "Suckers!," which offers a straightforward litany of gripes concerning the world and its gullible inhabitants. Rhys wryly calls it a "miserable, complaint-rock song" that came to him at a dark moment on a rainy day in Cardiff: "Sometimes I sing that song tongue in cheek, and at other times I sing it and it's absolutely sincere."
Rhys sounds like he's still skating on that schizoid musical past. Yet while Hey Venus! seems to function as a musical exorcism of sorts, the frontman sees it as part of the natural order of the Super Furried Universe, with each recording a reaction to the last. He suggests that the next effort will depart from their current space age moodiness. "Maybe next time we'll bring back the electronics," he says. He pauses and laughs before adding, "And I can start writing lyrics that are less exposed!"
SUPER FURRY ANIMALS
With Holy Fuck and Here Here
Sat/9, 9 p.m., $20
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell, SF