Although it's not a game that is played too often, a round of Name Your Favorite Welsh Psychedelic Pop Record usually ends with everyone tossing out the name Super Furry Animals. Older players might be able to toss out names like the furry acid-rock freaks Blonde on Blonde, Man, or even Meic Stevens -- that's if you're reaching for the geezer obscuro-vote. But the best response would be to name any record released by Gorky's Zygotic Mynci (pronounced "gorky's psychotic monkey").
For the last ten years, Gorky's has been digging in and around all manners of folk and gonzo artpop and coming up with handfuls of songs that detail such lesser-known pleasures as poodle-rocking, salt-eating, and peanut-dispensing. In the beginning, the group was an anomalous gaggle of teens whose burst of homespun psychedelia and castle-storming whimsy threw aging record collectors for a loop. They made a lot of people feel vindicated for buying Pentangle records and still holding dear to the idea of a Canterbury music renaissance.
Although the Renaissance renaissance didn't exactly burst to fruition (not even remotely), it did bring the group a lot of press. The fact that these young kids sang in Welsh and had songs with titles like "Wizard & the Lizard" furthered their reputation as tree-dwelling candidates for the next Middle Earth expedition. That early material was full of the usual shrieks and juvenilia of teenagers -- but it seemed to be coming from teens who had been locked in an attic with copies of the first few Soft Machine records (before they turned into wonky, progressive garbage). They even titled a song after ex-Soft Machine member and '70s prog-pop artist Kevin Ayers. For Gorky's, the idea of grappling with freakish chord changes and images of medieval tomfoolery never seems to be too far out of the range of possibility -- but for now they've managed to settle along that fine line between love-struck foolishness and genuine pastoral-inflected wonder.
For fans of Gorky's, it's been a good year. In February of 2001, the group released an EP, The Blue Trees, which showed the group ably taking on elements of Bert Jansch's dextrous guitar work and shedding any outer signs of whimsy -- instead replacing folly with the love-struck glory of a song like "Face Like Summer." It was a great EP, and it deserves to be heard for many reasons -- if not just for their take on "Fresher Than the Sweetness in Water" (originally done by the criminally underrated '60s pop group The Honeybus).
In September of 2001, the group released their seventh album, How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart -- an album overflowing with captured innocence and a further exploration of all things folk and pop. Although The Blue Trees and How I Long were recorded within about six months of each other, there is a definite switch in dynamic, something most assuredly due to the loss of the group's longtime drummer. "We view those records as quite different, really," says vocalist Euros Childs. How I Long has a bit more polish than The Blue Trees, which is, according to Childs, "a bit more ragged."
Childs is in fact very open about the band, for which he writes most of the songs as well as adding guitar and his distinctly sweet, consistently sublime vocals. Speaking from his home in Cardiff, South Wales, he comes across as very intelligent, yet he often seems hidden behind a virtually impenetrable accent. A simple statement like "Making pop records has been an interesting diversion" becomes a series of hurdles that even the most devout of transcribers must approach as a blind leap. Luckily, the author of such tracks as "Illadd Eich Gwraig" and "Merched yn Neud Gwallt eu Gilydd" tends to speak in less song-specific terms.
Despite any "language barriers," How I Long is surely the group's most realized and accessible release. It takes those much-coveted West Coast harmonies that everyone from Beachwood Sparks to Teenage Fanclub seems to adore, and paints them up in summer colors and tales of honeymoons-to-be. It's an album that only a band that has taken many turns together can pull off. It also manages to sound natural and inspired as it jumps from pop perfection ("Stood on Gold") to wheezing, psychedelic overthrows ("Her Hair Hangs Long").
Each of these successive releases has worked as a shedding of skin -- a refining process that's built not on skill, but on the understanding that simple is often better. It's a direction in which the band has been heading since its inception. "We don't like the idea of maturity," says Childs. "We're not perfecting a craft. That's not what it's about. It's about communicating with people. Communicating with ourselves. It's not about learning a new chord; we're not really interested in musicianship. It's not five individuals -- it's a band."
That mentality is something you can audibly trace over the course of their output. It's something that has resulted in some truly head-spinning moments on every album they've released, the best of which might be 1999's Spanish Dance Troupe. This album received the widest release over here -- and it's certainly their most cohesive. It's also a strange album with a warm sound that does actually stand up to White Album comparisons -- not so much in breadth, but in the actual sound of a band performing and creating a dynamic. It's a record that marries the group's jumpier impulses with wrought-iron melody. One minute you're digging "Poodle Rockin' " (replete with Childs playing the part of the poodle), the next minute the group is clomping on the piano and chanting "Hair like monkey, teeth like dog" repeatedly, like you've just wandered on to the set of a Welsh version of the last reel of Rosemary's Baby.
If these things constitute the outer, fringe elements, then the gooey center is found in softer, lyrical odes like the title song, "Spanish Dance Troupe" ("I was playing the tree trunk/ In a forest of fools"), and "Faraway Eyes" -- one of those songs you listen to and think, "Jesus, why hasn't someone written this song before?"
Maybe it's this element that makes Gorky's so interesting. They make music out of a love of past and future sounds and translate it into a kind of warmth that has you flipping back through records by the Band and Fairport Convention. Don't think that this is all revisionism, though. Gorky's doesn't play dress-up, nor do they play the role of willful obscurists. You won't find the band dwelling on the re-creation of certain sounds or indulging in Ray Davies hero-worship that, however worthy, often leads to nothing more than stunted growth. Bands like the Apples in Stereo or Of Montreal are great in the context of pop music, but you can bet that their first record is always going to sound like their last. Looking over a stack of compact discs and vinyl releases by Gorky's, you see that they really have managed to create something unique and fairly rare. Without a huge, cultish following, the group has managed to maintain an artistic aesthetic while also holding true to a not-as-yet clearly defined musical vision. "You have to actually work harder at songwriting than when you first start," says Childs. "You need to make everything more special. You have to make it affect you more. ... If it was getting really dull and boring, and we began to think that what we were doing was just a pale imitation of the previous record -- I hope we'd be able to recognize that and knock it on the head. Songwriting-wise, and the way the band plays -- I think we still have a lot of firsts in us."
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