Gruff Rhys: American Interior

Music Reviews Gruff Rhys
Gruff Rhys: American Interior

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, while other Britpop bands were busy feuding and putting more effort into their swagger than their songwriting, Super Furry Animals were quietly building one of the scene’s best catalogs. The Welsh five-piece walked to the beat of their own drum, offering swaths of blissed-out alien fuzz pop that straddled the line between archetypal verse-chorus tendencies and off-the-wall sonic escapades. The band became one of the most unpredictable acts to emerge from the rubble, and its charm was cemented in its own nonconformity—a trait that sustains itself to this day.

Many of SFA’s quirks are the brainchild of frontman Gruff Rhys, who is never short on left-field ideas or endeavors. Over the years, Rhys has collaborated with a number of notable acts (Gorillaz, Mogwai, Simian Mobile Disco, Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse, etc.) while also stringing together a solid repertoire of solo material. But now, Rhys has embarked on his most ambitious projects to date: an expansive chronicle of his 2012 expedition mapping the travels of John Evans, a distant relative of Rhys’ who in 1792 traveled from Wales to the US seeking to find Mandan, a mythical Welsh-speaking tribe of Native Americans. Rhys traveled his ancestor’s route in search of answers, playing shows along the way and holding presentations in art galleries, all seeking to reveal his relative’s significance and ultimate fate.

The resulting chronicle of the journey is American Interior, a “multimedia exploration” of Rhys’ experience told through four different mediums: song, film, book and (why not?) mobile app. Released earlier this year in the UK but only just now released in the US, American Interior documents Rhys’ travels as he pursues the legacy of Evans and what it might come to mean. With stops in Philadelphia, St. Louis, New Orleans and everywhere in between, the tale unfolds with vivid detail and sophisticated storytelling. Rhys has never been one to shy away from his Welsh roots, frequently channeling them in his music, and American Interior is the apogee of such endeavors.

But as a piece of music, what’s most intriguing about American Interior is its ability to stand on its own. While the album can be viewed as a supporting piece to Rhys’ documentary (in which he travels around the country with a puppet of John Evans), the album is powerful enough to function by itself. While Rhys’ work in SFA is no stranger to fatuous synths and voice modulators for compelling effect, the songs on American Interior feel immediate and organic. Standout tracks like “Liberty (It’s Where We’ll Be),” “The Whether (or Not),” and “The Swamp” dispense with the nonsense that has sometimes plagued Rhys’ songwriting and instead focuses on stripped-down structure and hook. With contributions from former Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock, the album not only outlines Evans’ and Rhys’ travels but also keeps you captivated on a song-by-song basis, fusing together countrified Americana with Great Plains folk rock (with doses of SFA inclinations tossed in for good measure). On the surface, American Interior could be construed as a sprawling, eccentric pet project, but the music proves it’s anything but. It’s one Rhys’ most accessible works to date, and he welcomes you along for the ride.

American Interior is a monumental feat for Rhys, one that confirms just how sophisticated of a storyteller he is. And even though the project has its own unusual approach, American Interior as an album lets the listener enter unencumbered. While the film and book no doubt go into greater narrative detail of Evans’ story and Rhys’ efforts to document it, the album never feels like an afterthought or supplement to the overarching storyline; rather, it feels like a highlight. The deeper you get into the music, the more of a focal point it becomes, not just background noise to Rhys’ excursions. The story—often bizarre and funny and tragic—is spelled out in the music, and it’s a story worth hearing.

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