I’ve liked SFA for more years than I care to remember, and occasionally REALLY, REALLY liked them, but there’s always been a sense that they’re too familiar, too consistently just ‘pretty good’, to really love them intensely. I’d enjoyed early singles but thought the debut gauche (Howard Marks never striking me as a particularly pleasant man despite his charm and cache), and then really enjoyed Radiator and, especially, Guerilla. Mwng I foolishly ignored for a handful of years, assuming, stupidly, that because it was entirely in Welsh I wouldn’t get anything from it. As if I didn’t get anything from Cocteau Twins or CAN or anything else sung in what might as well be gibberish syllables to my ears. Rings Around The World and the groove of identikit records which followed it (all very good, but none especially identifiable in my mind) caused the affection I’d held them in dampen. I bought every record, but seldom went back to them after initial contact.
But in early 2009, after the fallow field that was 2008 in musical terms, SFA almost transmogrified into the metaphorical “brown-haired girl-next-door who was right for you all along”, largely thanks to Dark Days/Light Years. At least to me; long-time fans and critics didn’t seem all that fussed by it, but what do they know?
I almost see DD/LY as a flipside to the preceding Hey Venus!; where that album was essentially a collection of brief, energised pop songs that revitalised the band after the slightly tepid, mature Love Kraft, SFA’s last album showcased their longer, groovier, more psychedelic side, and did it brilliantly.
Yes, there are still moments of (glam) pop (“Inconvenience”, “Mt”) amongst the krautrock-y psychedelia, but it’s definitely the wiggy guitar solos of “Crazy Naked Girls”, the motorik beats of “Inaugural Trams”, and the shimmering psychedelic momentum of “Cardiff In The Sun” (as beatific and blissfully vapid a groove as “Some Things Come From Nothing” from Guerilla), and the full-on voyage of “Pric” that characterise things for the most part.
Having said that, though, possibly my favourite track is the gorgeously odd “The Very Best Of Neil Diamond”, which is both very pop and pretty damn avant-garde at the some time, mixing deliciously odd loops, textures, and percussive patterns into something so original that, well, you wouldn’t expect it from anyone other than SFA.
Dark Days/Light Years reinvigorated my relationship with music, as well as my relationship with SFA themselves, after a year when I thought I’d fallen out of love with it; as well as making me reacquaint myself with their whole back-catalogue, it made me want to get my headphones out and turn my speakers up in general, and set out 2009 as a year which would keep firing wonderful music at me.
As for Mwng, well, it was the record done most good by that re-exploration of their back catalogue. Concise, and shorn of the electronic frippery which is sometimes the best thing about what SFA do but sometimes the worst, it seems to channel all their creativity into the songs for once, rather than the decorations they garnish them with. So there’s perfect pop like “Ysbeidiau Heulog”, just about the catchiest thing they’ve ever recorded, and epic, windswept melancholia in the closing track, “Gwreiddiau Dwfn” / “Mawrth Oer Ar y Blaned Neifion”, which Gruff claims to have wept rather than sung. Without the usual studio wizardry, Mwng also showcases the band’s consummate musicianship; they avoid the temptation to fall into folk or country clichés, and somehow still keep things strange and unpredictable despite working with a more prosaic palette. It suits them.