Review: Cian Ciaran – Outside In
Published on July 30th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
It’s always felt somewhat disingenuous to refer to Cian Ciaran as merely the keyboardist of Super Furry Animals, at least ever since his contributions to the band took on a form above and beyond the boogie piano chords and sci-fi whirring noises that punctuated the Welsh masters’ 1996 debut album Fuzzy Logic.
The following year’s seminal Radiator LP saw Ciaran emerge from his shell in earnest to imbue the group’s psychedelic punk-pop with electronic wizardry so seamlessly integrated as to remain, fifteen years on, a master class in stylistic cross-pollination that many of today’s clunky ‘crossover’ merchants would do well to take away and study – actually study – for a whole year.
Thinking on, it was Ciaran’s own “Furryvision”, Radiator‘s blissed-out instrumental opener, that heralded the Furries’ arrival as true visionaries in a manner loosely comparable to Paul McCartney’s spectacularly spazzed-out guitar solo on Revolver opener “Taxman”. By the time of 1999’s Guerrilla, Ciaran’s alternately berserk and soulful electronics had become the internal structure of the SFA monument, a unique selling point that propelled this already fantastic band into the realms of the greats.
Fast forward to 2001’s major label debut Rings Around the World and Ciaran was being entrusted with turning Super Furry live shows into barmy raves pretty much single-handedly, while his Acid Casuals side project allowed him to indulge his otherworldly talents even further. This all reached a climax with “Slow Life”, the still gobsmacking finale to SFA’s 2003 album Phantom Power, and then something changed: his songwriting contributions to 2005’s Love Kraft came in the form of an elegantly romantic, languidly paced ballad (“Walk You Home”) and a supremely rich, Pink Floyd-worthy flight of mysterious fancy (“Cabin Fever”), while his 2006 Acid Casuals LP Omni comprised largely of organically filmic mood pieces with the odd burst of loved-up ’60s pop, not least magnificent closer “Bowl Me Over”.
The ornately, swoonsomely arranged Doo-wop of “Carbon Dating” from SFA’s 2007 album Hey Venus! consolidated Ciaran’s fascinating metamorphosis and, barring a couple of punchier offerings on 2009’s collection of jam extrapolations Dark Days/Light Years and his series of Acid Casuals EPs from the same year, it is this Ciaran that we find on Outside In, his first release under his own name and the first full solo release from a Super Furry Animal other than Gruff Rhys (drummer Daf Ieuan’s The Peth project notwithstanding).
In fact, you could argue this to be a new Ciaran incarnation (in-Ciaran-ation?) altogether: whereas the likes of “Carbon Dating” were broad of spectrum in terms of colour, texture and nuance, much of Outside In is strikingly sparse in a way that brings to mind John Lennon’s ’70s output: like Rhys’s sublime Hotel Shampoo of last year it’s an album written on the piano, but understandably executed with more natural ivory-tinkling flair than his usually guitar-wielding band mate.
“Whatever happened to all the people who give a fuck?” is the immediate question posed by “You & Me”, establishing one of the album’s running themes, that of basic humanity. “No more bullshit for you and me” consolidates the red ‘Explicit’ sign attributed to the track by iTunes, but don’t let that dissuade you from luxuriating in this song’s swooning strings, Ieuan’s satisfyingly crunchy drums (complete with classic Ringo fills), Guto Pryce‘s distinctive bass plinks, the elegant, lightly Floydian beauty of the chorus, and of course Ciaran’s deliciously textured layered vocals.
“Whatever happened to all the faith and trust in this whole world? / Whatever happened to selflessness, consideration, cooperation?” – Rocksucker couldn’t give you an answer for that, but we can tell you that Ciaran is really singing from the heart here, and it sounds bloody fantastic.
Is the “’til” of “‘Till I Die” spelt wrongly so as to disassociate itself from the Beach Boys classic of the (almost) same name? Suppose we should have asked Ciaran when we interviewed him last month. In any case it’s an ornate, luxurious love song worlds away from “Wherever I Lay My Phone (That’s My Home)” (which in itself remains worlds away as it is), another primary theme laid bare with “Woman, what have you done to me?” before ending with an almost classical-sounding arrangement of piano and string. Who did the string arrangements, by the way? It doesn’t sound like Sean O’Hagan.
That’s another one we should have asked. Ah well.
Wistfully slow-trotting ukulele number “Love Thee Dearest” gets to the heart of the matter in no uncertain terms: “Now you’re gone my days grow longer / And yet they fly and pass me by / My dreams are gone of growing older / With you right there by my side / So here’s to you and all you gave me / My love for you will never die / My dearest, know you’ll make me happy / My sweetheart and that never-ending smile”. Such candidness is really quite disarming, more brutally frank than Rhys’s apparent break-up-inspired lyrics on Rings Around the World, and musically it brings to mind The Divine Comedy circa 2004 album Absent Friends, featuring consecutive guest appearances from a seriously mellow Wild West piano and a strange whirring sound.
“3rd Time Lucky” is even reminiscent of “Ten Seconds to Midnight” from The Divine Comedy’s 1994 album Promenade, doing good by the previously stated“no more bullshit” epithet by being one of several songs on Outside In to begin straight from the off with Ciaran’s voice and a piano. The songwriting here, as it is across the LP, is wonderfully sophisticated without ever compromising its grace and humility, and when “3rd Time Lucky” leaves the piano to its own devices as a coda it reminds of The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Go Near the Water”, as well of course as Ciaran’s own “Cabin Fever”. Masterful stuff, and the best is yet to come.
“1st Time” and “3rd Time Lucky”
“Martina Franca” is surely one of the best songs about pasta ever written: for more about that see our interview with Ciaran, in which we also discussed the verse’s similarity to The Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains”. Mind you off the top of our head we can also think of ELO’s “Across the Border” and Ween’s “Dr. Rock” as others to have cribbed from this precise source, so not only is Ciaran in good company but he furthermore redeems himself for any encroachment with a gleeful, grin-inducing falsetto on the chorus’s titular refrain.
“1st Time” is perhaps even more akin to “Ten Seconds to Midnight” in its retelling of a first time meeting between lovers, the lyrics remaining honestly and instinctively straightforward with “I hope this journey never comes to an end / Given the choice I’d do it again and again”. It’s just over a minute long, entirely a capella, and it all ends with a casually hummed cadence worthy of the already oft-cited Beach Boys themselves. Meanwhile “Rollercoaster Ride” makes for a vampish yet psychedelic partner to guitarist Huw Bunford’s “Battersea Odyssey” off Hey Venus!, bordering on waltz but imbued with a slight dark edge that could have seen it fit well on Omni. Moreover it is absolutely superb, and if as we suspect it sapped more than its fair share of the recording budget by virtue of its baroque/exotic instrumentation…well, it was resoundingly worth it.
Ciaran wields a stupendous jazzy inflection on the line “Little lights / You didn’t hear what I said / You’re still on red” from “Red or Green?”, another to last just over a minute and vaguely ELO-ish with it, while “Here and Now” – still equipped with that near-ever-present slow, steady drum beat – comes across as if Dennis Wilson was a member of The Beatles circa Let It Be, issuing such ruminations as “Nobody knows how to play / This life, a dress rehearsal it ain’t / You gotta live for today / Live for the now, not yesterday / There’s better times to be had / Just like the guillotine broke hopes and dreams” before fading out while Ciaran’s still singing, conceivably in reflection of life’s fleetingness if we’re not reading too much into it, which we probably are.
The stately, chiming piano chords of “So Long” is invested with a country-ish sway complemented by pedal steel (courtesy of Bunford?) and pretty swipes of string. “What precious little time we have to wish away our lives” continues Ciaran, who somehow manages to lead the kind of arresting chord progression that would make an ELO classic well up with tears into a rueful, soulful and soul-like chorus, as if Marvin Gaye had been reincarnated as a heartbroken Welshman.
How’s this for Lennon-esque from “Fool”: “Am I a fool for loving you? / Am I a fool to think we couldn’t die? / Please forgive me if I ever make you cry / I’m a fool to wonder why”. This beautifully sparse little piano lament, which clocks in at just 1:31, moves on to a whistle-topped chord progression more than a little reminiscent of early SFA B-side “Trôns Mr Urdd”, and if you’re familiar with this lost gem then you’ll know there ain’t nothing wrong with that.
“What Will Be” brings more elegant triplets, romantic overtures, exquisite melody and delivery thereof, introducing a very welcome brass section which sticks around to embolden the swing on Dylan-goes-Motown closer, which brings down the curtain on an optimistic note with “That’s how life seems sometimes to me / Unpredictable, can be bittersweet / I wouldn’t have it any other way”, “I wish everyone the best of luck in life / And smile at the world in the hope that it smiles back / Seasons wait for no man, you see / So let’s enjoy the ride, make our own history” and a cheerful coda of “Who knows what will happen today / Never mind tomorrow?”
If Ciaran is to be taken at his word he should have an album of guitar-based songs ready to go by January 2013, so at least we have an idea of what will happen tomorrow so far as this extraordinary musician goes. It would be great to hear him with a full orchestra at his disposal as his is a talent that demands indulging, but he wears the often-bare-boned production as well as anything he’s tried his hand at to date. Outside In may lack the compelling idiosyncrasies that marks Gruff Rhys’s solo work, but it’s no less fabulous for it.
Rocksucker says: Four and a Half Quails out of Five!