Gruff Rhys Babelsberg

Gruff Rhys Babelsberg
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Gruff Rhys's decades-long career has been built out of oddball musical turns for one, having Paul McCartney's guest spot on a Super Furry Animals album consist solely of McCartney crunching carrots and celery (as Macca had done three decades earlier for the Beach Boys). But Rhys has always wrapped those conceptual quirks up in rich pop sensibilities and affecting melody, too.
 
And so it is with Babelsberg, Rhys fifth solo album, which mines a musical and lyrical disconnect to speak to the present: backed by a trio of players, plus the 72-piece National Orchestra of Wales (arrangements by composer Stephen McNeff), Babelsberg's ten songs comprise a confident, fully realized soundtrack to a quasi-fictional dystopia.
 
The large-scale symphonic accompaniment gives these songs a classical glide, and it serves Rhys's dulcet delivery well. But underneath the scoring, he's focused on the times at hand: "Architecture of Amnesia" speaks of "scaring the people with hysteria" at a reluctant march pace, while "Negative Vibes" bemoans the lack of a middle ground through bright-but-regretful melody. On "Oh Dear!," Rhys mournfully repeats the title as kinetic orchestration swirls around him, and album-closing duet with Lily Cole, "Selfies in the Sunset," finds a calm melancholy in  photos of yourself at the end of the world. Sometimes it's a bit on the nose, but it's never less than compelling. (Rough Trade)