Gruff Rhys, Y Niwl, and Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys @ Brighton Music Hall, Boston on Tuesday, June 14, 2011.
The list of unjustly ignored (by the general populace, obviously each of these has a strong following in certain circles) top-notch songwriters certainly includes stalwarts such as Andy Partridge, Mark Eitzel, Vic Chesnutt and Dan Treacy. While jotting down a list of people who's laurel collection is severely lacking in comparison the piles that would accumulate in a just world, Gruff Rhys would certainly qualify. The leader of the best-ever Welsh rock band Super Furry Animals has not let his songwriting muse lay fallow over the last several years as the main group's output has slowed a bit, and since 2005 he's put out the same number of solo records (three) as the band has managed.
Tonight would take him to the penultimate date on his North American tour for his newly released Hotel Shampoo, and unlike the last tour where he was accompanied only by a table of noise-making props and Lisa Jen as a musical/vocal foil, this tour matched him with fellow Welsh Y Niwl who provided a full band backup. Rhys' songs in the solo configuration are not as dense as the Furries' material, and they tend to easily float around the air and into in your head, nestling in a cozy little space and settling down. "Vitamin K" from the newest record is a perfect example of this, his lilting voice carrying the sweet melody; alas, the live setting lacked the strings and subtle horn arrangements but easily overcame that and was still a high point. He played selections from all his records, including the Welsh-sung "Pdwin Wy" (both parts 1 and 2) and "Cycle of Violence" from 2007's Candylion.
The set ended with the strongest song of the record (and clear contender for any best of 2011 song list), the brilliant "Shark Ridden Waters." Instead of using a digital sampler to trigger the seaside-inspired sounds of waves and gulls that introduce the track, Rhys went old school and used a nearby turntable and LP to cue up the appropriate sounds. The skittering drum pattern perfectly complements the feeling of a kid skipping a stone across the water's surface, and like the best of Rhys' lyrics, he uses the combination of meter and content as well as anyone else. Perfect pop song. The encore saw the return of some of the 2007 tour's stage props (notably the airplane inflation vest) and the epic tale of "Skylon" took us to our final destination.
When not playing Rhys' songs, Y Niwl was a straight-on surf rock band, complete with the echo-laden guitar tone and no-nonsense rhythm section. As a genre, surf music is about as played-out as one gets, but it's still fun to revisit past pleasures and they certainly were more than competent at it. Openers Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys had a revolving cast of musicians on stage and dressed-up extras in the crowd, and despite the over-the-top theatrical flavor that was presented visually, they were capable of cranking some concise rock ditties that wouldn't be out of place on a Decemberists record. A cover of a Clientele song saw them appropriately don surgical masks, but the bunny-headed drummer wasn't the impetus for a Nobunny cover. Raw garage rock isn't in their wide-ranging mix.