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Furry Animals: Phantom Power
Posted: July 20,
SARS, Iraq, bioterrorism, Pat Robertson praying for the expulsion of
three Supreme Court justices, economic instability: The accumulated
laundry list of ills hanging over our heads these days can be oppressive,
just the kind of dreariness that the bright, uplifting, experimentally
loopy pop of the Welsh quintet Super Furry Animals seems tailor-made to
combat. And judging by "Hello Sunshine," the cheerily named opener of the
band's sixth release, Phantom Power, the Furries appear all too
happy to oblige. "In honesty it's been a while/ Since we had reason left
to smile," Gruff Rhys sings, and the band's embrace of optimism and joy in
the face of despair, coupled with its reputation for musical escapes that
could best be described as "exuberantly zany," suggest that Phantom Power will
be all about stopping to smell the roses.
Then something odd happens: The Furries stage a blunt lyrical assault
on the leaders who would would usher the band's country and its people
into danger. While the band has hardly been apolitical in the past, the
vehemence with which Rhys intones "You're a disgrace to your country/ If
you fled a million miles/ I'd chase you for a day/ If I could be bothered"
is startling; one can picture the song's target (no names are named, but
it's safe to assume that a certain British Prime Minister weighs heavily
on Rhys' thoughts) shuddering as if someone had just walked on his grave.
What happened to "Hello Sunshine?"
That dichotomy, both interesting and alarming, lies at the heart of
Phantom Power. To be sure, the record boasts the familiar upbeat Furry
sound, but the lyrics, conjoined with a pair of downbeat instrumental
bridges ("Father Father #1" and "Father Father #2") alter its delicate
dynamic, creating a profoundly melancholic vibe that undercuts all the
shiny pop bubbling at the surface. There's a newfound depth to the
Furries' music, a sense that no matter how hard the band tries to keep
things positive, the darkness in the world has managed to encroach on its
outlook and musical approach. And while that makes for a fascinating
listen, especially for those familiar with the group's back catalogue, one
can't help but feel saddened by the thought that the Furries are no longer
the same band -- the members have matured to the point that the carefree,
anything-goes aspect that made their music so endearing has been replaced
by stronger craft and a more hard-edged examination of serious everyday
the World dealt with its share of issues, ranging from the glut of
debris encircling the globe (the title track) to global warming
("Alternate Route To Vulcan Street"). But there was a playful intent
behind the words, like a child pointing out the obvious. By contrast,
Power's "Bleed Forever" lacks Ring's air of cheekiness, dealing
as it does with the harmful long-term effects of radioactive fallout from
the 1986 Chernobyl disaster drifting over Wales.
Not that Phantom Power is all doom and gloom: "Golden
Retriever", an infectious, bluesy number, and "Valet Parking", which
celebrates the joy of driving across Europe, add a much-missed levity, and
offer much-needed reassurance that the Furries haven't completely lost
hope in the future of humankind.
And the record does boast an impressive sense of musical cohesion, its
continuity broken only by "Out of Control," a half-hearted stab at
faux-metal that too obviously betrays the band's punk leanings and,
despite a sturdy beat, never
quite catches fire.
Phantom Power, then, proves a contradictorily apt title. The
Furries have cloaked their grimmest lyrical content in a familiar, bright
pop-art sheen. For those who merely listen to the record's surface, it's
all great hooks and catchy melodies. Powering that sound, however, is a
malicious phantom, intent on making you smile while the music's playing,
only to assault you with troubled dreams after the lights have gone out.
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