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Innocence Lost

 

Super Furry Animals: Phantom Power

XL, 2003

Rating: 4.3

 

 

Posted: July 20, 2003

By Laurence Station

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 issues.

Certainly, 2001's Rings Around 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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