But a listen to Rings Around the World will wipe the smirk right off your mug. An amazingly rich record, Rings, if nothing else, legitimizes SFA as one of the premier creative forces in experimental rock. The Welsh quintet has beefed up production from past recordings and managed to streamline the musical schizophrenia just enough to make seemingly obnoxious musical combos succeed. "Sympathy" starts off sounding like James Taylor but ends up closer to Aphex Twin's Richard D. James. This song's painstakingly arranged metamorphosis ought to have Beck headed back to the lab, and fast. Syrupy strings and warm brass are other Me Decade-isms that pop up throughout, on songs such as "Juxtapozed With U" and "Presidential Suite." The former is a vocoder-enhanced, sickly-sweet R&B theme redeemed primarily by its oh-so-relevant chorus: "You got to tolerate/all those people that you hate/I'm not in love with you/but I won't hold that against you." The balance between Bacharachian cheese and subversive optimism is remarkable. Forget love, sweet love: What the world needs now is brains like this.
SFA's social conscience also backfires, although it's not necessarily the group's fault. On "Presidential Suite," a soothing/scathing ditty about the decadence of '90s politics, Bill Clinton's sexual misadventures and our ridiculous obsession with them are rightfully mocked. However, in light of events in September, it's hard to see this song as even remotely relevant. The same goes for "Run Christian, Run," a gorgeous but trite country ballad about insane doomsday Christians.
Luckily, most of the album makes you forget about such disappointing matters. On the highlight, "It's Not the End of the World," Gruff Rhys' falsetto soars atop heavenly strings: "Yet as our hair turns white/all the stars still shine so bright above." As the song climaxes, we're instructed to turn "all the hate in the world/into a mockingbird/Make it fly away." From a group that relies heavily on goofing around, moments such as this are surprising and beautiful.