Super Furry Animals

When it debuted with 1996's Fuzzy Logic, Super Furry Animals never even came close to figuring into the whole "Oasis vs. Blur vs. everyone else" equation that the brief Britpop invasion wrote on the U.S. blackboard. Which is a shame, since the huge melodies on that disc out-popped--or at least equaled--everything Oasis was doing at the time. After that, the group became much too strange and esoteric for its own commercial good; an entire album (2000's Mwng) sung in their native Welsh, for instance, wasn't about to crack any pop market in the United States--or anywhere far outside of Wales, for that matter.

Truth is, the type of music making up the best moments on Rings Around the World (the group's fifth and latest album) hasn't really cracked any market in the United States since the early 1970s, when it still ruled both the charts and the AM airwaves. But electronic effects--which actually come off more like Pink Floyd or Zappa than Chemical Brothers--aside, SFA do that pop and progressive thing on their latest release every bit as wonderfully as their spiritual influences. In fact, two of those influences--Paul McCartney and John Cale--make eccentric cameo appearances on the album; as in, McCartney chomps on celery and carrots (yep) on "Receptacle for the Respectable." Like those forebears, these lads are wonderful thieves. "Alternate Route to Vulcan Street" kicks things off with a spacey classical piano-and-strings motif that at first sounds like more self-indulgence until it nicks the hook from John Lennon's "Oh, My Love." The title track, meanwhile, is a Beach Boys/Beatles/ELO homage as fine as the '70s heyday of Roy Wood's Wizzard or very early Cheap Trick. And the gorgeous "It's Not the End of the World" is guaranteed to induce the same type of melancholic, goose-bumpy splendor that tunes like the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset," Dennis Wilson's "Forever" and Jack Bruce's "Theme for an Imaginary Western" still do.

Lyrically, the album looks at the sad state of things: The Bacharach-blessed "Presidential Suite"--which follows the beautiful Philly pop soul of "Juxtapozed With U"--uses the Bill and Monica scandal as its launching point. Singer Gruff Rhys asks, "Honestly!/Do we need to know if he really came inside her mouth?/How will all this affect me now and later?" (Answer: Not nearly as much as Bush and Enron.) The words really are secondary, so maybe the Welsh album wasn't that strange after all. It's hard to remember a modern band this ambitious, and more important, this successful at that ambition.

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Bill Holdship