There seem to be two sides to Gruff Rhys’ musical personality. One is the reckless, mischievous, funny and experimental side recently exhibited on the last Super Furry Animals album Dark Days, Light Years and on the brilliant collaboration with Boom Bip on Neon Neon‘s Stainless Style. The other is a reflective, whimsical, hazy, so-relaxed-as-to-risk-sounding-lifeless form of psychedelia. This predominated some of the later SFA albums, particularly Love Kraft, and it may also have the measure of this intermittently engaging second solo album. Hotel Shampoo is an album that starts promisingly but which becomes increasingly introspective.
The album gets its title from Rhys’ habit of collecting used mini-shampoo bottles from the many hotel rooms he has stayed in whilst on tour. The idea is perhaps not terribly original, but it has a certain cuteness and charm. Much of the music here has a similar feeling to it – pleasant, if perhaps slightly underwhelming. Little here really pushes the boat out for Rhys, and some of his eccentricities seem to have been toned down in favour of a casual and restrained atmosphere. Much of the album floats on a soft, cushioned drum sound and Rhys’ vocals often sound thoughtful and dreamy.
A handful of tracks here could be described as upbeat, particularly the Andy Votel-produced opener Shark Ridden Waters, but even these seem almost benign. Shark Ridden Waters achieves a gentle variety of psychedelic soul, whilst Sensations in the Dark uses Mariachi horns in much the same way steel pans where deployed on SFA’s Northern Lites. The latter also makes use of a calmly propulsive montuno-style piano riff, whilst the former has something of the sound of Simon Nye, the former Noonday Underground member and brains behind Paul Weller‘s Wake Up The Nation. It’s light and deft, but hardly brimming with energy.
Rhys could never be accused of being low on ideas, and there’s plenty on Hotel Shampoo to admire. Vitamin C is blessed with a slithery melody and some odd saxophone contributions which are coincidentally similar to those on the new Iron & Wine album. Honey All Over somehow manages to combine quasi-military drumming, with some familiar and pleasing multi-tracked Rhys vocal harmonies and the faint whiff of Jeff Lynne. Rhys never shies away from a transparent hook, and some of his choruses here are defiantly hummable.
There are also some real mis-steps though. Conservation Conversation is slightly thin and underwritten, with strummed acoustic guitar failing to provide depth or interest. The closing Rubble Rubble, with its Bontempi keyboard preset sound is even less appealing. A potentially powerful Rhys song is ruined by what sounds like an only half committed vocal delivery and a plodding, bargain basement arrangement.
Rhys has spoken honestly in interviews about his desire to make a ‘mature’ album. It’s easy to accept that ‘maturity’ might necessitate diluting some of the excesses and eccentricities Rhys displays with Super Furry Animals. It doesn’t have to entail a lack of bite and impact however. Even at its best, Hotel Shampoo feels a little polite and reserved. It’s unfair to expect artists to remain static – but then there’s little on Hotel Shampoo that Rhys hasn’t already delivered with more confidence and clarity in his other projects.