Gruff Rhys - Babelsberg

by Bill Golembeski Rating:9 Release Date:2018-06-08
Gruff Rhys - Babelsberg
Gruff Rhys - Babelsberg

Babelsberg is a highly melodic orchestrated pop record, replete with backing vocals and the occasional rock coloring.

The big cinematic sound is a solo far cry from Rhys’ mothership, The Super Furry Animals, whose own sound is a love fest with The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and late 60’s Kinks, plus a dash of electronics. None other than Sir Paul McCartney is rumored, not only to be alive and well, but to have crunched celery and carrots on the song “Receptacle for the Receptacle” from the band’s Rings Around the World album. Apparently, his vegetable chewing was a reprise for Sir Paul, as he, once upon a pop masterpiece time, crunched in time to Brian Wilson’s tune “Vegetables” on the aborted Smile record.

But that’s history. This heavy orchestrated pop sound is (another) far cry from Rhys’ previous albums. That said, this is a wonderfully tuneful set of songs that conjure the best of late 60’s Baroque rock music. Love’s classic Forever Changes certainly come to mind, as does The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past.

“Frontier Days” swirls with the big strings, and (at least to these ears) has a vocal that sounds like the smooth voice of the great Kevin Ayres gliding effortlessly through a confident melody. But then the lyrics voice an odd juxtaposition because this “Frontier Man is on the frontier of delusion.” Oh, and there is a “nightmare of existence.” In a way, this song reminds me of The Kinks’ “Apeman,” except, this time, there is no escape from “the motor traffic rumble.”

That could be a problem, what with the no exit sign on the door. But the tune’s melody is so infectious, and perhaps, it’s a bit of a lifeboat. In fact, this entire record may be a pair of those inflatable water wings that lets us all bob with security against the next big inevitable wave.

“The Club” also swirls with grand pop design, yet the lyrics talk about being “thrown into the darkest alley.” Odd. The music is in such juxtaposition with the lyrics. And the song recalls the absolute intense beauty of Phil Ochs’ last-ditch attempt at sanity with his song “Another Age” from his classic album of final despair, Rehearsals for Retirement. “Oh Dear!” is even more upbeat, with a bass line that bounces around the universe as Rhys’ urgent voice pleads for that same sanity that tantalized dreamy Phil Ochs and his quest for democracy. 

Rock music tantalizes the world with impossible grapes.

And it should always do just that.

But the wonderful melodies persist against the frontier of reality. “Limited Edition Heart” is catchy pop music with those big backing vocals and equally big orchestration. A guitar is suddenly unleashed, and it grounds the helium music with a rock ‘n’ roll tether. “Take the Call,” is again impossibly tuneful, and actually recalls “Eleanor Rigby.” But there is more electric guitar, so all is quite right with the world. “Drones in the City” is slow, airy, and spooky, as is our modern world with eyes everywhere. It’s a beautiful song.

“Negative Vibes” is acoustic and rolls easily off a folk singer’s tongue. Such irony, and it’s a powerful cure for those “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” about which (to mention him again) Sir Raymond Douglas Davies is always singing. The song grabs at those impossible grapes. And, quite frankly, it’s drinking from the same 60’s melodic fountain as (the great) Bevis Frond.

Three songs finish the album. “Same Old Song” talks of “coughing blood on an American tour,” while the tune is pleasant (and even hummable) to a fault. The pace and the falsetto recall the soul of The Band’s Richard Manuel. It’s lovely, and those strings simply soar. “Architecture of Amnesia” is, once again, slow with staccato drama. This is sublime pop music.

And there is the necessary (and lovely) duet with Lily Cole on the finale of “Selfies in the Sunset.” Heroes no longer save the world and ride into the sunset; no, now we simply take photos of ourselves and call it a day.

So, this album is framed in the grandeur of big strings and huge sonic promises, much like its namesake reference, the Tower of Babel, which of course, had human hubris as its cornerstone, a cornerstone that is a continuous rhyming archeological dig for homo sapiens just about everywhere. Perhaps that’s the point: This is truly beautiful music that wraps its dramatic notation around everyday stuff like delusion, darkest alleys, negative vibes, and blood. You know, a big Beatle like Sir Paul could have, in reciprocation for The Super Furry Animals’ help with his Liverpool Sound Collage, produced, sang, or at least played piano on some tune. But the guy who gave the world “Yesterday” simply chewed celery and carrots.

And that’s exactly what this album does. It is glorious music that manages to sing the praises of celery, carrots, and all the other vegetables everywhere, vegetables that have soul, vegetables that rock, vegetables that feed the rabbits, vegetables that sing right out loud, vegetables that ride on the highways, vegetables that keep us healthy, and ultimately, all the vegetables that, quite simply desire like everything in everyday life (with big fanfare and in a very rock ‘n’ roll way), to be crunched and chewed in time to a beautiful bit of music every once in a while.

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