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Guff Rhys - Candylion Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 May 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    5
sound:    7
release year:    2007
label:    Team Love
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

ImageThough there is any number of plausible explanations why the lead vocalist and songwriter for a band might feel the need to make music outside the group dynamic, it’s a short list of bands that have survived very long in such a scenario. Rod Stewart, Brian Eno, Bjork – there’s a long list of artists whose first solo releases provided the writing on the wall for a band whose demise was imminent. After all, why would a songwriter need to make a solo album if he or she didn’t feel the need to express something that couldn’t be satisfactorily said within that dynamic? With Candylion, Gruff Rhys seems exceptionally comfortable riding solo.

As the lead vocalist and songwriter of Super Furry Animals, one the U.K.’s most innovative and imaginative bands over the last 10 years, Rhys has been rightly championed as a genius and forward-thinking auteur, seamlessly blending prog rock, punk, pop and electronic music over their 13-year existence. But with 2005’s Love Kraft, a commercially and critically disappointing release that ended the band’s tenure with Sony, Rhys showed the first signs of being a bit disinterested in his band. Just six months earlier he released his first solo album, the Welsh-language Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, a one-man affair with songs that were a good deal more interesting than most anything on his band’s release. But as much as that first solo release seemed a bit tentative, more of a no-frills experiment in clearing out a backlog of leftover songs, Candylion sounds like the work of a songwriter who is intent on starting over, creating songs that bristle with the same homemade energy but with considerably more polish. This is the sound of an artist content to be calling all the shots.
Opening with nearly a minute of vintage ‘70s synth cheese and a spoken word welcome, “This is Just the Beginning” provides a light-hearted entrée to the album, leading into the cheery title track. With jingling glockenspiel, simple strums, sighing strings and summery harmonies, “Candylion” is pure pop fluff, rather clumsily using the story of a lion who lives in a kingdom of candy to illustrate the dichotomy between the pleasurable and the painful. It’s not a bad song, but such a cloying sentiment is beneath an artist of his insight and off-center wit. And therein lie many of the shortcomings of Gruff Rhys as a solo artist; he simply seems content not to say much of anything.

Of course, it’s not fair to criticize one man’s vision for being narrower in scope than his work within a band a context, but Candylion is startling mostly for how tame it sounds. Despite its Brazilian undertones and playful synths, “Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru” manages to be both slight and obnoxious, its repeated titular refrain growing tiresome by the end. Similarly unremarkable are commonplace love ballads such as the vanilla coffee shop pop of “Beacon in the Darkness” and the dreamy melancholy of “Ffrwydriad Yn Y Ffurfafen.”

That said, it’s obvious Rhys has spent a lot of time on these songs, and Candylion is not without a few outstanding moments. Wrapping a sputtering gallop in gooey strings and cooing female backing vocals, “Lonesome Words” exudes a desolate calm, the narrator lost in the windblown desperation of his own mind. The gurgling electronics and French pop lilt of “Painting People Blue” is similarly imaginative, its breezy cadence and stoic melody becoming more interesting with each listen. Even better, the psych-pop sing-along of “The Court of King Arthur” manages to be one of the few moments where Rhys’ insatiable taste for ear candy is warranted. The majority of the album is simply nice enough, with even its best moments simply lacking the vision and audacity that make Super Furry Animals albums so enduring.

Add it up, and despite its obvious craftsmanship, Candylion is just an average release from an exceptional talent. The careful arrangements, the smart production, the accessible melodies – it’s obvious Rhys is taking his solo gig seriously. But artists like Rhys usually use solo albums to indulge their most unconventional impulses, not make also-ran pop albums that invite unfavorable comparisons to their other work, and that’s why Candylion simply fails to be much more than a pleasant curiosity. Given his track record, it’s obvious Rhys could do some really interesting things on his own. Until he decides to, let’s hope he doesn’t get too used to riding alone.

Favoring bold textures and retro production, Candylion doesn’t skimp on sonic detail. From warm multi-tracked vocals to fuzzy bass lines and vintage synths, the album has a rich and consistent tone that serves the mood of the songs well. Even so, Rhys could have taken a few more risks, and the general paucity of electronic instruments or modern studio trickery ends up making the album sound more staid than it would otherwise. All in all, it’s just one more element that keeps the album from being as engaging as it should be.

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