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For the savior of Welsh pop, Gruff Rhys sure writes some god-awful lyrics. From half-baked social protest to twee absurdism to cloying odes to family pets, Rhys has committed pretty much every lyrical sin in the book. On “God! Show Me Magic,” a track from the Super Furry Animals’ very first LP, 1996’s Fuzzy Logic, he even committed all of ’em at once: “Wouldn’t it be nice to know/What the paper doesn’t show/What the TV doesn’t say/And what my hamster ate today?”
Of course, unless you’re really into hamsters, you probably haven’t noticed: Along with drummer Dafydd Ieuan, guitarist Huw Bunford, bassist Guto Pryce, and keyboardist Cian Ciaran, Rhys creates a protean blend of classic pop and up-to-date electronica so catchy and spot-on that it’s won the hearts of regular music listeners and curmudgeonly critics alike. These influence-happy Cardiffians have never heard a hook they didn’t believe worth nicking, whether from the Beatles, the Beach Boys, or some other band beginning with B. Their sticky-fingered approach has more or less held up over six LPs, including 2000’s Mwng, sung entirely in Welsh, and 2001’s Rings Around the World, which spun heads with its seemingly effortless forays into gleeful capital-P Power Pop (the title track and “Receptacle for the Respectable”), Byrdsian guitar whimsy (“Run! Christian, Run!”), and surreal symphonic balladry (the wonderfully titled “Shoot Doris Day”).
Rings Around the World was a high-spirited romp, the product of a band showing off its marvelous mutability. The Super Furries do lots of fearless shape-shifting on the new Phantom Power, as well, but the sad state of the world seems to have taken the edge off the band’s usual ebullience. Phantom Power includes an antiwar tune (“The Piccolo Snare”), a dig at the U.S. of A. (“Liberty Belle”), a song about post-Chernobyl radiation poisoning (“Bleed Forever”), and, in Rhys’ not-so-grand lyrical tradition, a track that seems to protest, well, everything (“Slow Life”).
Phantom Power opens on a lamentably folky note, with late-’60s chanteuses Wendy & Bonnie warbling in an echo chamber about how it’s “so hard to say goodbye.” We’re saved when “Hello Sunshine” kicks in for real, coupling a lazy, vaguely ’70s-ish melody with some cheery (but not nearly so cheery as you’d expect) lyrics about everyone’s favorite celestial object. The very next track, “Liberty Belle,” is even better. Rhys has gone on record as saying this songwhich is as infectious as Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” which it can be seen as a retort tois “sung from the perspective of a bird living almost in a parallel universe to humans, oblivious to the gravity of the games which are being played around us.” Whateverlyrics such as “Liberty Belle is ringing out across the sea/And everyone sings along/Though she’s singing way out of key” make one thing clear: Rhys doesn’t much care for current American foreign policy, “Woo! Woo!”s notwithstanding.
I’m not sure whose perspective “Golden Retriever” is sung from, but it sure is hummable, even if it does boast a set of lyrics that are insufferably dumb even by Rhys’ standards (sample line: “‘Stop!’ Said the puppy/When I met him at the Zebra Cross”). So far as I can figure, somebody meets the Devilor a particularly comely poochat the crossroads, and oral sex ensues. With a storyline like that, the music had better be damn good, and it is: Ieuan gallops along on his drums, Rhys and some female backup singers wail, and Bunford lets loose the dogs of hell with some distorted guitar that summons up the ghosts of Yardbirds past.
Bunford also goes to town on the frenetic “Out of Control,” which Rhys has called “our Iron Maiden song.” The metal comparison is apt, because no matter how the Furry Ones try to dirty this one up with squalls of feedback, distorted vocals, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“Fast and cheap/Ninja jihad/Suck my oil/Feel my vineyard/I am scum”), they can’t hide its sleek pop lines. Similarly, all the radiation in the world couldn’t keep the midtempo “Bleed Forever” from sounding as safe as milk. With its “Look, Ma, I’m Stevie Winwood” vocal and classic-rock vibe, it comes across like nothing so much as a long-lost number by Blind Faith.
Phantom Power’s most ambitious track, “The Piccolo Snare,” is a hushed madrigal in the portentous tradition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.” In other words, it’s lovely beyond words and will bore you to tearsthat is, until the band, which seems to have waited until the last minute to read the fine print of the Welsh law that condemns Simon and Garfunkel- inspired artists to hang from the gibbet, makes a hard left turn into aping Alan Parsons, a practice that Welsh jurisprudence is strangely silent on. Me, I can’t decide whether this piece of overdone pop foppery is a brilliant pastiche or a guilty pleasure, but either way, I love it.
Like most bands that wear their eclecticism like a badge of honor, the Super Furries sometimes seem too all-over-the-place for their own good. Such is the case when they follow up the Brazilian-accented “Valet Parking,” which features some smooth- as-Skunk Baxter guitar work, with the horn-driven, steel-drum flavored pop-ska of “The Undefeated,” which conjures up horrible memories of the early ’80s and gives Rhys a chance to croon like Elvis Costello. It’s a long way from Carnaval in Rio to the football terraces of Liverpool, and one gets the sense that the Super Furries’ eagerness to make the trip might eventually become their undoing.
Still, there’s plenty to admire about the Super Furries’ style-hopping, and you can hear almost its full extent on the album-closing “Slow Life.” Veering from ponging Euro electronica to propulsive krautrock, it’s as cool as anything by Tarwater or DAT Politics. And unlike their continental counterparts, the Super Furries aren’t afraid to let “Slow Life” build to a satisfyingly cathartic crescendo. “I see television/Pretty pictures of starvation…/I see fractures/I see fragments/Rocks are slow life,” sings Rhys, to absolutely nobody’s edification. But who cares? As in most of Phantom Power, the words hardly matter. And hey, at least there are no hamsters. CP