Kraftwerk, Marlena Shaw, Super Furry Animals 2003 David Bennun
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Marlena Shaw/
Super Furry Animals

[The Mail On Sunday, 2003]




KRAFTWERK ARE not only the most diversely influential act in pop (without them, techno, electro and hip hop would have run unimaginably different courses), they are also the most exactly imitated. In the mid nineties, I lost count of those techno records which might as well have been created by Kraftwerk on an off-day. This lands Kraftwerk with a problem: that through no fault of their own, their first album of new material in 17 years closely resembles any number of mid-nineties techno records.
 The law obliges me to describe Kraftwerk's music as “shimmering” and “elegant”, and Tour De France Soundtracks certainly is both those things. What it lacks is the tingling Futurist resonance of the band's 1970s masterworks. This, too, isn't Kraftwerk's fault. Their optimistic fetishising of technology, at once innocently utopian and faintly sinister, has been rendered obsolete by an era with a childish disdain for science. Kraftwerk's future came true, only to be rejected by its beneficiaries. Their music hasn't changed - it's still quite lovely - but the context has; and that word, “soundtrack”, is unfortunately apt. Once Kraftwerk seemed to draw the world forward in their wake. Now they're a pleasantly atmospheric noise in the background. It's our loss.
 Marlena Shaw is a marvellous singer - raised on jazz, with strongly soulful leanings - whose reputation has been deservedly on the rise in recent years. She's been embraced by rare groove revivalists, sampled on the cracking Blue Boy hit Remember Me, and currently supplies a TV commercial with a version of California Soul conspicuously more delicious than the fried chicken it advertises.
 The Blue Note Years compiles three albums Shaw recorded in the 1970s. A mixture of classics and curios, it serves as a useful companion piece to the broader Anthology retrospective on Soul Brother records. It's well worth owning if only for the fabulous and definitive live take on Woman Of The Ghetto - an astonishingly great recording.
 Not everything here lives up to such standards. The interpretations of well-known songs range from classy (Feel Like Making Love, in one of its few bearable incarnations) via coffee table (Me And Mrs Jones, Twisted, Save The Children) and bizarre (a bewilderingly jaunty Somewhere from West Side Story) to cheesy yet curiously enjoyable (Last Tango In Paris, on which Shirley Bassey meets Eartha Kitt). Shaw, like many artists who had no business doing so, later followed Philly producers Gamble and Huff down the slick pathway to disco, and the results haven't weathered well. But the languorous, silk-upholstered soul of Easy Evil, Loving You Was Like A Party and Time For Me To Go make up for that. And if you ever wanted to know how a black Karen Carpenter would have sounded, The Feeling's Good will show you.
 In common with any other quotidian miracle - the summer wardrobe of Brighton's womenfolk, say, or the mixed roast meat at my local Chinese caff - the arrival every so often of a Super Furry Animals album tends to get taken for granted. It's a paradox of the Super Furries that they are routinely refreshing, predictably inventive.
 You can be sure that each new record will cram in so many puckish melodies that they stick out at odd angles, like wire coat hangers in a small but neatly-woven wicker basket. That it will feature the kind of whimsy and topicality (this time around, references to golden retrievers, “mingers” and the Williams sisters) which in less crafty hands would come across as irritating and slightly desperate. That it will be elliptical, sardonic, charming and uncompromised. And that Gruff Rhys will sing as if he was dragged from bed and thrust before a microphone without the intervening benefit of so much as a mug of tea.
 In keeping with their original constitution as a techno outfit who happened to play rock, SFA don't set out to cross musical boundaries, but simply remain oblivious to their existence. Any given song on Phantom Power may deftly incorporate half a dozen different genres. Countrified close harmony jostles against pastoral prog, clunking electro and proto metal, with the result that, as ever, SFA sound a bit like everyone and a lot like no-one, themselves included. They are Britain's most singular, self propelling and consistently engaging band. At this rate, SFA's potted psychedelia will still be evolving when ex-Creation stablemates Oasis have calcified into archaeological relics. . . hmm? OK, when something that hasn't already happened takes place, then.

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