Beyond his whimsical, anarchic streak Gruff Rhys has always been a songwriter of unnerving excellence. From his 15 years with Super Furry Animals, his stint with Neon Neon, his guest spots with everyone from Mogwai to Simian Mobile Disco; he has brought his razor sharp vision and magnetic quality for melody to all. If the general public could see beyond tanks, Deloreans, bears, spliff and shampoo bottles they’d unearth a rare gem; a songwriter with depth, wit and a playfulness that never dims. Hotel Shampoo, his third solo effort manages to break from the perceived eccentricity of his previous output and could be his most accessible and successful album yet.
The lazy Bacharach horns and smooth piano ballads may suggest a maturing of the mind but the subject matters are anything but schmaltzy. The soft chug of ‘At The Heart of Love’ with its swelling chorus and swirling strings may deceive but as Gruff intones “jealousy is a currency at the heart of love” it’s clear that this is a barbed wire kiss signifying the repellent reality of love. The mundanity of relationships and the untangling of emotions is tackled throughout the album with El Perro Del Mar icing the sweet confection of ‘Space Dust #2’, her chirping vocals and the dreamy xylophone backbeat making the tale of commonplace disappointment that bit more tragic.
It’s not all broken hearts on sleeves though. The album’s uptempo numbers truly excel with the thrilling single ‘Sensations in the Dark’ an exhausting broken pinata of a song that manages to sound like Os Mutantes and the Temptations downing tequila at a dive bar. Gruff’s Finders Keepers cohort Andy Votel takes the reins for the two standout tracks: the sublime, languid surf-pop opener ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ and the big daddy stomper ‘Christopher Columbus’ which apart from oddly having a break reminiscent of All Saints maligned comeback single ‘Rocksteady’ also features the best sax solo this side of ‘Baker Street’.
This slight schizophrenic nature can seem a little ill-fitting at times with the infectious, sample heavy tunes feeling like they were blasted from another album leaving you wondering what it might have been like if Andy Votel had inhabited the album a bit longer, perhaps unnecessary filler like ‘Sophie Softly’ may have been eradicated. Ultimately Hotel Shampoo captivates with its gentle, swoonsome soft-shoe pop that showcases Gruff Rhys as a songwriter at the peak of his powers with a shelf life longer than the usual rinse, lather, repeat crew.