ALBUM REVIEW: Gruff Rhys – American Interior

Whilst several artists struggle to get together a collection of ten tracks together to release for their latest album, Gruff Rhys went all out with his latest solo album, ‘American Interior‘, the follow up to his award-winning third album ‘Hotel Shampoo‘, with a complete package including a film, book, mobile phone app and of course the CD itself.

Best known as the front-man of Welsh psychedelic rock group Super Furry Animals ,Gruff has performed in many bands and has experience in a wide spectrum of the arts from performing, recording and producing music, to storytelling, songwriting, film-making and film composition. His latest solo release, his fourth to date, showcases a wider range of these skills than any of his previous albums has explored, with a vast multiplatform release making his new record stand high above the rest of the crop.

“The project is set in 1792 and tells the true story of John Evans, a 22-year old farmhand from Snowdonia, North Wales, who set off to America to discover if the rumours were true and there was a Welsh-speaking Native American tribe, called The Madogwys, walking on the Great Plains. During the course of an extraordinary adventure, Evans wrestled the largest river reptiles ever seen in the Mississippi, hunted Bison with the Omaha tribe, defected to the Spanish in St Louis, discovered imaginary volcanoes in Missouri, annexed North Dakota from the British, and created the map that guided Lewis and Clark on their legendary expedition.” 

Here is my track by track guide to the album ‘American Interior‘. Led by the prominent drums and piano with filtered vocals and plenty of technical wizardry going on towards the back of the mix, the album is a rich cluster of styles, sounds and stories.

01. American Exterior 

The album is introduced with a pulsing synthesizer that sounds something like an alien’s phone ringing in outer space with heavily chorused, flanged and phased vocals repeating the title of the album, as the drums build up to the start of the first real track, ‘American Interior’.

02. American Interior 

Led by rumbling piano chords, and the drums from the intro track, ‘American Interior’ has a slight Ziggy Stardust feel to it. The repeated “American Interior” refrain is used extensively throughout the track in both the verse and chorus sections, even popping up in the middle-8 guitar solo, which leads into the strings playing a somber harmony underpinning the layers of voices and the track becomes noisier without getting louder. Check out the official video for the track below. 

03. 100 Unread Messages 

A driving drum beat and unaccompanied vocals start the track, as the other instruments fade in. The feeling of the track is that of an American folk/country song that you would imagine being sung by a man in dungarees whilst playing a banjo (and if there is anybody out there who chooses to cover this track, I think that would be a great way to go!) but the instrumentation is contemporary with guitars, synths, piano and drums. The effect is that the song has a vintage feel with a modern twist, which I think works really well together.

04. The Whether (Or Not)  

Another quite trippy sounding vocal track, which reminds me some The Beatles songs, such as ‘Tomorrow Never Knows‘. The track combines catchy short pop hooks with an experimental development of harmony in this expansive track, doused as the others are with prominent piano and drums in the mix.  

05. The Last Conquistador 

The Beatles vibe definitely continues with this track, from the narrative style to the simple accompaniment and even down to the drum fills. From the story of John Evans, I assume that this track is about the part when he defected to the Spanish in St. Louis. The outro is spaced and gentle, winding into the next track. 

06. Lost Tribes 

With lots of vocal and synth layers, Lost Tribes in places sounds like a cross between A-HA, Pet Shop Boys and Wham!’s Last Christmas (without the sleigh-bells and cheesy video of course!). 

07. Liberty (is where we’ll be) 

This was the first track that I heard from the album and I was hooked straight away from the seductive string riff, which had the sleekness of John Barry’s orchestration in the James Bond films. The vocals and piano parts work well together, sounding like a 90s ambient dance track. The production is fantastic, mixing in a lot of layers with utmost precision. This is my favourite track from the album after first listen through and I think it will take a lot to shift it. See the official video below. 

08. Allweddellau Allweddol
Just in case anybody was uncertain of Gruff’s heritage, this track is sung entirely in Welsh, probably unsurprising from the title which loosely translates to “Keyboard Key”. The children’s voices loop throughout the track, seeming slightly stranger after the drop at 2:20 where the tempo increases and it started to feel like a bit of an underground rave anthem.
09. The Swamp 

A simple riff, simple development and simple lyrics combined to make a simple yet great track.
I’m just a tourist passing you by
I’m just a passenger saying goodbye

10. Iolo 

With the momentum of a moving train, the drums, strings and vocals push this track forward at breakneck speed. Even without lyrics, the music still seems to tell a story. It is possible that this track is about the influential Welsh antiquarian Iolo Morganwg who was around at the time that the story was set. See a live video of the song below.  

11. Walk Into The Wilderness 

One of the simpler songs on the album, Walk Into The Wilderness has a much more typical structure and stripped back production, showcasing the songwriting more than the studio techniques, of which Gruff is clearly a pro at. The exposed vocal over the raw piano chords just past the half-way point of the song show a new vulnerability to the album, which I think is a nice colour to add to the palette. See a live video of the song below.

12. Year Of The Dog

I was born in the year of the dog” is the catchy hook in this track which looks at astrology of the Chinese Zodiac signs. The chorus of verses in the chorus gives the song a warm lift into an almost poppy number. The album seems to be taking the listeners back into reality after the journey it has taken them on so far.
13. Tiger’s Tale

Bringing the album to a close, Tiger’s Tale is an instrumental coda, moving through a lot of textures from the first half of the album in a melodic summary of the record. I can imagine this track being used at the end of the set as the band one by one walk off the stage, tipping their hats to the audience on their way off the stage. 

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