fri 22/06/2018

CD: Gruff Rhys - Set Fire to the Stars | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Gruff Rhys - Set Fire to the Stars

CD: Gruff Rhys - Set Fire to the Stars

The Super Furries frontman releases a soundtrack that stands tall and on its own merits

Keep on pouring as long as you like…

Super Furry Animals front man Gruff Rhys is a quietly prolific talent. Every few years or so, there’ll be another album, complete with the kind of thought-through concept that gives lift to his literate and expressive story songs and colours them with context.

“Literate” is word very much at the centre of his latest project, a soundtrack to the 2014 film Set Fire to the Stars, which details Dylan Thomas’s time in New York in the 1950s. Recorded around the same time as Rhys’s wonderfully expansive ode to another Welsh traveler to the Americas, the explorer John Evans, American Interior, the album finally gets a release this month.

A quartet comprising Rhys himself, the extraordinarily talented Chris Walmsley (All Traps Set) on drums, former Portishead collaborator Jim Barr on double bass and Osian Gwynedd on piano played the songs and instrumentals Gruff had written for the movie as well as improvising when required.

The result is a fantastically varied and utterly satisfying exploration of subtly defined musical themes. Soundtracks provide an environment in which songs can be extended and reworked, melodies bouncing back – elegant echoes, inhabiting many lives and solidifying a sense of familiarity. Here, the title track plays in perfect pop form at the top of the piece, before a stirring string quartet version appears, itself ideally placed to lead into a piano and drum-led reprise reminiscent of Sebastian Tellier’s “La Ritournelle”. Then, later, a more muscular, string-soaked version is driven by a rhythmic undercurrent that recalls the very best of Badly Drawn Boy’s earlier work.

There are subtle head nods elsewhere, too. “Dylan’s Demons”, with its rolling piano and lazy funk feel, winks and nods as it passes Charley Cuva’s soundtrack to Robert Downey Sr’s 1969 satirical comedy Putney Swope, but does so with a smile of recognition rather than the sneer of theft.

“Tremble to the Light” recalls The Band, though no more so than it does Super Furry Animals themselves, which is testament to the strength of Rhys’s songwriting identity and the extraordinary timbre of his voice. It’s hard to describe accurately the quality Gruff displays, but his delivery accents a child-like expression of adult life, stripped bare of pretension and layered with feeling. On this project, it’s the perfect vessel.

Many – possibly even Gruff himself – might not consider this soundtrack a proper solo album (there's one due in 2017). The feeling, perhaps, is that a piece like this is too constrained by the job it has to do. I don’t agree. For me, musically, it’s quite possibly the most satisfying thing he’s produced yet as a solo artist and one of the most captivating things I’ve heard all year.

Set Fire to the Stars is one of the most captivating things I’ve heard all year

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters