For anyone unfamiliar with Super Furry Animals, let me give you this tip before going into their latest album, Phantom Power. Don’t try to figure the band out; you’ll drive yourself crazy in the process. Anyone with a basic ear for music can pick out a few obvious reference points. The truth is that the beauty behind the Furries music is that unlike other bands that make the same claim, they truly don’t limit themselves to any one sound. The songs on last year’s Rings Around the World compromised sunny pop, trip-hop, 70’s soul, classic rock, prog, and more. Each had their own distinct universe where the most exciting part of every listen came with the passages that took you from one world to the next—when one song would break down unexpectedly and go off in an entirely different direction, leaving you sitting there wondering how a standard pop song turned into a maniacal robot repeatedly screaming the phrase, “receptacle for the respectable.”
What we have on Phantom Power is another attempt to conquer the music world by mastering all of its genres. The Super Furry Animals are back with yet another album of cheeky pop songs and brilliant cross genre-fication. Unfortunately, they have seemingly lost their knack for finding those special transition phrases that took the songs from one style to the next, leaving us instead with a mix of impressive albeit jumbled songs that seem like a compilation rather then a cohesive effort.
If you take each song by itself, you’re left with a very high success rate. But when you take this as one large piece of art with several pieces, you notice a small lack of continuity and quality alike. “The Piccolo Snare” drags a tired progression through two or three minutes before it starts to drag a tired drum loop for two or three more. “Out of Control” is another bad selection, an attempt at cheese-metal which is too funny to be considered serious and too poor to even be considered a joke. “Golden Retriever” isn’t entirely bad, although the song reeks of gimmick and unlike other SFA songs of the same ilk, doesn’t have the benefit of an inventive sound and/or super-catchy melody to make the 15-minute-of-fame-single sound seem intended. Without those three songs, we’d have an album hovering around 40-minutes with eleven killer tracks. The three aforementioned songs are spread out enough through the album so that they are less noticeable, but they still shouldn’t be included here.
If you still feel confident forging ahead with the rest of the album, you’ll be rewarded with your typical Super Furry affair—dramatic pop from all walks of life in a timbre that recalls the heyday of 60’s Britpop and psychadelia bands presented in an entirely modern fashion, with the use of all sorts of digital as well as analog instrumentation, not to mention Paul McCartney chewing on a vegetable. “Venus and Serena” hits you at first just as hard as Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair” might have done, and for the same reason—”Venus and Serena” is the most intended and blatant out-of-left-field stab at college radio success the Super Furry Animals have ever recorded. But at the same time, like Pavement’s 1992 breakthrough single, you’ll find yourself rooting for it to succeed because it’s the type of song you can’t get enough of. “The Undefeated” cuts from soul and reggae to country to Chicago-era 70’s rock all within four minutes. “Liberty Belle” and “Hello Sunshine” are of the same feel of Rings Around the World‘s title-track. “Sex, War, and Robots” even takes a stab at Sea Change-style Beck, and for a second the heartache makes you forget you’re only listening to the Super Furry Animals. “Father Father #1” and “Father Father #2” sound remarkably similar to the instrumental pieces that opened and closed Nick Drake’s landmark Bryter Layter—folk with acoustic guitars and full-blown orchestras. The songs here don’t lack charm whatsoever, balancing the line between genius and animated insanity better than anyone has managed to do in a while.
What we have here is an album that, if given the time of day, can make you smile. Once you experience breakthrough on the fact that it isn’t Rings Around the World and can appreciate the songs for what they are, you’ll find an album carefully thought out and quite fun to listen to. The world needs more bands as brave as the Super Furry Animals to bring music into a brand new world. I know I’ve signed up for the ride.
Be sure to check out the Phantom Power mini-site.