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Gruff Rhys

+ {Neon Neon}

Fans of SUPER FURRY ANIMALS will instantly recognise cult-hero frontman GRUFF RHYS, while modern-day musos will know of the Welshman’s extracurricular activities with Cincinatti-based leftfield hip-hop solo artist, Boom Bip, in the steely, electro-pop NEON NEON.
Born 18th July 1970 in Bethesda, Gwynedd, Gruff had a brief spell with Creation label-ites, Emily, before he and drummer Dafydd Ieuan formed the distinctly Welsh and indie, FFA COFFI PAWB, in 1986/87. Unable to break free from the commercial boundaries that a Welsh-only singing band could muster and, after several years and three cassette-albums for Ankst Records, the pair chose to form the slightly more mainstream outfit, SUPER FURRY ANIMALS. Still going strong as of late 2013/14, wayward GRUFF RHYS had moonlighted several years back with an album set up on the SFA’s own Placid Casual imprint.
YR ATAL GENHEDLAETH (2005) {*7} – “The Stuttering Generation”: a pun on the word “contraceptive”, found the singer play every instrument outwith his trusty guitar, while the record displayed layers of electronica and crooning throughout its half-hour run; playlist `Gwn Mi Wn’ (aka “I Know [that] I Know”), `No Yw Y Byd’ (“We Are The World”) and `Epynt’ (a mountain in Wales).
When the Furrys signed a deal with Rough Trade, so too did RHYS for solo album number two, CANDYLION (2007) {*7}. A lighter, twee-fashioned set similar to that of SYD BARRETT or 80s funsters, TELEVISION PERSONALITIES, Gruff starred on such deeply dippy dirges as `Lonsome Words’, `Painting People Blue’ and the prog-length curtain-closer, `Skylon!’.
Having joined forces with Bryan Hollon (aka Boom Bip) for what seemed a one-off 45 in 2005: `Do’s & Don’ts’, Lex Records were also behind their NEON NEON enterprise on the Mercury-nominated Top 75 set, STAINLESS STYLE (2008) {*8}. Inspired by the likes of PRINCE and KRAFTWERK, and showcasing an elite bunch of party guests (Spank Rock, Yo Majesty and Fat Lip), this strange John DeLorean concept gleaned mirrorball-glam from a post-new wave 80s, while stand-out picks stemmed from attendant singles, `Raquel’ (about Ms Welch), `Trick For Treat’ and `I Lust U’; the latter with CATE LE BON.
Back on solo terra firma and, on after a low-key garage/house record (THE TERROR OF COSMIC LONELINESS (2010) {*5}, with Brazilian Tony Da Gatorra), HOTEL SHAMPOO (2011) {*7}, put RHYS back in the charts. While the said dual LP comprised newbie noodles and dangly doodles that bridged a gap between self-indulgence and “SUICIDE-al” rock, the “Shampoo” set was a bottle short in a sea of showers. A title lifted from his procurement of sample shampoo containers from hotels (bathrobes, towels and soap long since old hat, or indeed shower-cap!), Gruff slid almost comfortably-clean into cinematic crooner mode by way of the BACHARACH-DAVID types, `Vitamin K’, `Sensations In The Dark’, `Honey All Over’ and `Space Dust #2’; the B&D-scribed connective opener, `Shark Ridden Waters’, saw Gruff collaborate with Andy Votel.
Having portrayed the life of maverick car manufacturer DeLorean in their previous concept, NEON NEON chose to highlight communist publisher, Glanglacomo Feltrinelli by way of PRAXIS MAKES PERFECT (2013) {*8}. Forty-odd years since the Italian’s mysterious death in ‘72, the backdrop to a string of storylines made for added interest in each cue. Narrative and vocal cameos for eye-candy model actresses, Asia Argento and Sabrina Salerno (the latter on `Shopping (I Like To)’), was imaginative and exciting in a way PET SHOP BOYS could only dream of.
GRUFF RHYS at his most playful and eccentric, the solo AMERICAN INTERIOR (2014) {*7} was based upon the trails of 18th century explorer John Evans, who unsuccessfully attempted to unearth the legend of a Welsh prince, Madoc, who was said to have discovered the Americas in 1170 (sparking a Welsh speaking tribe!), long before Columbus sailed his first ship. Dippy and giddy rather than peppered with folk songs (however freaky), this concept piece touched on other genres such as reeling rockabilly (`100 Unread Messages’), Philly soul (on `Lost Tribes’ and `Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be)’) and C&W soundtrack (`Iolo’). If there’s one reference point, Gruff comes across as the Welsh RAY DAVIES, dream-pop clear but hazy on `The Last Conqueror’, `The Swamp’ and title track.
A SUPER FURRY ANIMALS tour reunion in 2015 curtailed Gruff’s solo career for a while, but it did unearth biography (Rise Of The…) and a fresh single, `Bing Bong’, a Welsh language pop ditty released in May 2016 to rejoice their nation’s entry into the Euros.
Consequently commissioned to compose a movie score, the soundtrack to SET FIRE TO THE STARS {*8} was finally unveiled in September 2016. Taking into account it was a semi-biopic about budding poet John M. Brinnin and his invitation to Welsh legend Dylan Thomas to come to the Big Apple in 1950, RHYS was fully aware of the immense undertaking. While the Andy Goddard-directed art-house film starring Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones was a relative failure, not so the accompanying music. Abandoning any notion that might construe he was a former Britpop star (although the many `Tremble…’ cues came close to the GORKY’s `Dark Night’ rather than recalling SFA), Gruff had bowed to a masterclass of NYMAN and BACHARACH (the former for the `After Hours’ and the `John…’ segues, and the latter on the sturdy 60s-cloned title track); the jazz jolts and other miscellaneous vignettes complemented this fine work.
Subsequently signed to Rough Trade Records, concept set BABELSBERG {*8} was dispatched in June 2018. Written up to a few years back when the political upheaval at home and away caused RHYS concern, the singer-songwriter constructed a fictional place within a bona fide town southwest of Berlin, Germany. From lemming-mania Brexit to an impending apocalypse, Gruff seemingly feels worthless inside his own “Babelsberg” bubble as he spies `Drones In The City’ eyeballing humanity dig its grave to hell, whilst building a Utopian tower to the heavens above. Melody-driven Gruff and a 75-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales (arranged by Stephen McNeff) somehow pull it off; his existential song-cycle best served by opener `Frontier Man’, `Limited Edition Heart’ and the co-scribed Lily Cole duet, `Selfies In The Sunset’.
Broadening his horizons after a stint with DAMON ALBARN’s shadowing side-project African Express (on “Egoli”), GRUFF RHYS subsequently worked with South African electro artist, Muzi, on 2019’s PANG! {*7}. This delicate union of sorts was eschewed on the opening cuts `Pang!’ and `Bae Bae Bae’, whilst other whimsical Welsh-language highlights, `Annedd I’m Danedd’, `Eli Haul’ etc. breezed along nicely. Forever and a day described as a modern-day MEIC STEVENS, though willing to experiment with rural rhythms and a few out-of-the-box genre twists, Gruff’s glowing half-hour hitherto sketched out fresh paths within bossa nova and world music.
© MC Strong/MCS May2014-Sep2019

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