[5 August 2003]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The rock music world needs more bands who possess both an innate pop sense and a sense of adventure. Once in a rare while, we do get an album of such music that’s as stylistically exciting as it is catchy; in the past 12 months, we’ve heard such stalwart efforts by bands like The Flaming Lips, Grandaddy, Manitoba, and Broken Social Scene, but have only attracted small core followings. Meanwhile, more popular artists who used to be cutting edge seem to have lost the plot: Audioslave and Jane’s Addiction are complete bores, Liz Phair has sold out, Blur tried valiantly, but Think Tank sputtered too much, and Radiohead, pretty much the only daring band left who is still massively popular, have sunk so deep into their own pretentiousness that they’ve forgotten what a memorable hook sounds like. Too many bands sound like they’ve stopped trying; where are the crazed pop lunatics, the ones who take a simple melody and at least try to do something new with it?
Thank goodness for Super Furry Animals. The Welsh band’s 2001 opus Rings Around the World was one of the only sparkling musical moments in what was an incredibly crappy, depressing year. You had robotic Marvin Gaye tributes, Beach Boys harmonies, a blatant ELO imitation, wild moments of techno noise, and the ultimate piece de resistance, the sound of Paul McCartney rhythmically chewing carrots and celery. It was a psychotic masterpiece of an album, proof that there was at least one band on this planet willing to do anything they could in an effort to put out the greatest rock record ever made. That delirious quality made Rings Around the World so endearing, and established the band as one of the best rock artists in the UK today.
So how does a band like Super Furry Animals follow up such a raucous, all-over-the-place piece of work? Well, according to them, you continue with the same thing, but this time, tone things down a little. Released nearly exactly two years after Rings, Phantom Power sounds more understated and warmer than its predecessor, but still retains both the ambitious and ridiculously catchy elements that we’ve come to love from this band. If the previous album was the musical equivalent of throwing trash against the wall to see what stuck, Phantom Power is more like sitting in the back yard and sipping a cold one on a hot, sunny day.
The fact that this isn’t Rings Around the World: The Sequel is driven home immediately when you hear the opening bars of “Hello Sunshine”. Instead of hearing the band, you hear a 45 minute excerpt from “By the Sea”, a tune by the obscure late Sixties sister act Wendy and Bonnie. A ballsy move, and singer Gruff Rhys suddenly pipes in as the rest of the band plays a languid, West Coast pop arrangement, singing self-deprecatingly, “I’m a minger/You’re a minger too/So come on, minger/I want to ming with you.” The single “Golden Retriever” (yes, it’s about a dog) is a fun blast of glam rock, with plenty of fuzzed-out guitars and flashy background singers, while “Sex, War & Robots” is a straight-ahead country ballad (albeit about a robot programmer), with guitarist Huw Bunford taking a rare turn at lead vocals, climaxing with the good line, “If tears could kill/I’d be a long time gone,” as strings swirl in, like a slick song from 1970s Nashville.
The album’s best moments are real knockouts. “The Piccolo Snare” is yet another Super Furry homage to Brian Wilson, with its lush vocal harmonies, but true to their nature, they turn the song on its ear two thirds of the way through with a terrific, lightly funky coda that fits perfectly (yes, that’s right, the Super Furry Animals are actually showing restraint!). “Liberty Belle” is Rhys at his most sublime; it invokes images of 9-11 (“As the ashes fly from New York City/Past the grimy clouds above New Jersey”), but the song comes off as more of a comment on the state of the world than just a mere tribute to America (“Everyone sings along though she’s singing way out of key/From the shores of Galilee/To the runways of Anglesey”). Although the wonderfully upbeat “Venus & Serena” has plenty of tennis imagery (“Keep your eye on the ball”, “Flushing meadows down the stream”), Rhys turns it into a song about a kid who finds out he was raised by wolves as an infant. Go figure. “The Undefeated” is a fun rallying cry with a contagious, calypso tinge to it, with its exuberant horns and steel drums, while “Slow Life” brings the album to a terrific close, as the band blends synth and techno beats with a simple, rock guitar riff and bluesy harmonica, and some strings thrown on top. It’s the kind of schizophrenic fun we’ve come to expect from the band, but here, it’s less showy and eager to please, as they control themselves enough to make the jarring, contradicting styles much easier to digest.
Rings was loaded with pointed social commentary (“Juxtapozed With U”, “No Sympathy”), but while the sentiment still remains the same on Phantom Power, Rhys is considerably less snide, taking a more laid-back approach (with the exception of the dark, anti-war “Piccolo Snare”). This time around, he sounds in too good a mood to get all worked up. Similar to what Grandaddy has done on their excellent recent album Sumday, Super Furry Animals have softened the more distracting elements of their sound, and like Grandaddy’s album, it’s a success. There’s still the odd hint of goofy experimentation (the rhythmic car horn honking in “Valet Parking”, the sound of the band fooling around with Uzis and Kalashnikovs on “The Undefeated”), but the focus, this time, is on the songs themselves. Though not quite as spectacular as Rings Around the World, Phantom Power is still one of the most refreshingly original and fun releases of the summer. On “Hello Sunshine”, Rhys sings, “In honesty it’s been a while/Since we had reason left to smile.” Not anymore.