Here’s a clip for you today if you miss there being people visible behind the music you listen to. It’s a performance of the song Sensations In The Dark by Gruff Rhys, formerly (?) frontman, singer and guitarist in Welsh psychedelic pop five-piece Super Furry Animals. (The band’s currently on hiatus as members pursue their own various and delightfully good side projects, but never say never!)
I cannot explain how fond I am of this video, although I will try! The entire concept of the album this track is on, Gruff’s 2011 third solo album Hotel Shampoo, is a wonderful mishmash of past, present and various mediums of storytelling. It began as a problem some of us may have had as well, in one form or the other: too many half-used, old bottles of complementary shower products, little souvenirs of our holidaying lives spilling over onto the racks of our bathrooms.
We still have, I’m embarrassed to say, shower gel and shampoo bottles from trips taken in 2015, the dates on the back of the containers consolidate our shame, but Gruff’s a touring musician! Starting in 1995 with Super Furries, touring around UK and the world, staying at a new hotel every day of the week, it was certainly an exciting experience for Gruff, and like many of us, he kept souvenirs, not imagining this wonderful experience could last. Trouble is, success and musicianship dogged poor Gruff and so, fifteen years later, he found himself facing boxes of old disposable shampoo bottles filling up the house, five hundred and sixty seven (567) of them to be exact.
There’s no real reason why we keep ours, and it’s probably a good idea to chuck them out soon, but it wouldn’t be Gruff Rhys if he’d dealt with the problem in such an anodyne way!
Going through the bottles and shower caps in his fifteen-year old collection, Gruff found that the containers brought back memories, hotel names, venues, gigs they’d played and states of mind: the excitement of being a new band on the scene, the highs, the lows, America, etc. (He didn’t state these examples, but that’s what I imagine anyway…)
Gruff began writing songs about the journeys and moments that those shampoo bottles had been present in, and about the various memories and what they’d brought back to him. All of that became the album Hotel Shampoo. And what of the shampoo bottles themselves? Gruff took a night to put them all together to make an actual hotel by gluing together the containers in an art installation at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. He then spent the night in that hotel of memories of his making.
Here’s him making Hotel Shampoo.
The song Sensations In The Dark itself, as Gruff says in his performance for the Guardian, is about the time when he was younger and growing up in his hometown of Bethesda in western North Wales, and used to tune into Dublin’s late night music radio stations across the sea, which were closer to his than the London stations, literally the sensation of discovering music after dark.
What I love about this performance? Where do I begin.
First, I love just how simplistic the arrangement of this performance is and yet it sounds so good! I have no idea how a simple acoustic guitar can sound so full, but it’s worked for Gruff for nigh 30 years now so there’s gotta be something to it.
Then there’s that lovely, understated falsetto with the slightest vibrato. It’s also worth mentioning how well Gruff understands the quality of his own voice (texture? Timbre? A magazine that interviewed SFA in the 90s once described him as “cello-voiced”, whatever that means), and uses that to his advantage. His music is written to be complemented by a sweet, soft voice, which is exactly what he possesses.
Gruff Rhys is one of the finer examples of greatness in simplicity. A lot of his ideas are really simple, as he lays bare here, Sensations In The Dark is just three major chords, but it’s the way Gruff puts together the whole song over it that reveals his incredible knack for writing a great pop tune. Time after time, his great pop sensibilities, indeed musical sensibilities, deliver another smooth-wine easily listenable tune with clever vocal melodies that sound unmistakably Gruff Rhys. I’m always amazed by it.
Then there’s just the general showmanship on display here. Gruff has a pretty sharp wit (that people don’t really give him credit for, as opposed to say, a Gallagher) and with the story behind the song, it really makes for a memorable performance.
On the whole, it’s up there with some of my favourite videos. Gruff’s supposedly in the last stages of mixing together a new solo album, and it’s meant to finally bring back the electric guitars, notably missing from this (and subsequent) record, and which I’m definitely looking forward to hearing. It might just be one of the highlights of my 2021.