Enjoying the more eccentric quarters of Gruff Rhys's colorful back catalogue hinge's on one's tolerance for his loose wordplay and peculiar themes. Rhys's last departure from Super Furry Animals, a culture-colliding collaboration with Brazilian VCR repairman Tony da Gatorra, was perhaps his most off-the-wall effort to date, packed to the gunwales with influences and ideas that would have been best left on the cutting room floor. Hotel Shampoo, then, catches the plucky Welsh songster in a mercifully modest mood, and is replete with comparatively straightforward songwriting and some surprisingly charming couplets.
But, as ever, there's nothing totally straightforward about any album bearing Rhys's name: He markets his latest as an attempt to "buy a suit and record an album of piano ballads," neglecting to mention his affinity for sprightly mariachi brass sections and a newfound penchant for über-sexy saxophone solos. And while this could be the closest Rhys ever comes to making a truly "mature" album, his quirky personality and giddy experimentation are still very much at the fulcrum of Hotel Shampoo. God forbid he ever grows up completely.
Given that Rhys has restlessly toured the globe for over a decade, and having recently spent an extended period of time in Patagonia last year tracing his estranged relatives, it's no surprise that his music incorporates a broad range of sounds. That Hotel Shampoo doesn't sound messy is a marvel in itself, for this album exists in cultural and stylistic limbo. One minute we're bouncing to "Sensations in the Dark" (an exotic jaunt with steel pans and mariachi horns lifted from Super Furry Animals's "Northern Lites") and the next we're sucked into "Vitamin K," a pensive nouveaux chamber-pop song complete with one of those aforementioned saxophone breaks and some superb tremolo cello work. "Shark Ridden Waters" plays like a spacey pseudo-Bond theme, an unruffled psychedelic number plucked from any decade in any galaxy you care to imagine. Rhys always seems comfortable in any environment he chooses to lay his scene, but refuses to settle into any particular sound throughout the course of the album.
Thematically, too, Rhys plays fast and loose with whatever tickles his fancy: "Space Dust #2" may represent the very peak of his storytelling prowess, as he spins an enticing yarn of star-crossed lovers falling for each other—and then gradually drifting apart—at a science conference. Sarah Assbring, the endlessly talented Swedish pop prodigy behind El Perro del Mar, is the Juliet to Rhys's everyman Romeo, and the pair trade call-and-repeat lines atop a honeyed matinée melody: She bemoans "You upped and left without warning," to which he nonchalantly replies, "I had to work in the morning." This track is full of pert witticism, and the two establish a fantastic repartee that will all but erase memories of Rhys's overblown jousting with de Gatorra last year.
Hotel Shampoo strikes a happy medium between Rhys's two personas. Here, he paces up and down his recording studio like a mad scientist at one minute, and playing the modish master of the lounge ballad on the other. Many of these tracks could well have featured on any Super Furry Animals record, but there's no question that they're also right at home here. Hotel Shampoo is terrific, neatly channeling all of Rhys's wonderful eccentricities into an intelligent pop record.