Super Furry Animals, 'Phantom Power' (XL Recordings/Beggars Group)

9
Phantom Power
Critical Mass
Label: XL Recordings/Beggars Group

by Zac Crain

In song and sound bite alike, Super Furry Animals have never made a secret of their love for America. But so far, their affection has gone unrequited, like a foreign-exchange student's crush on a head cheerleader. We like our imports easy to categorize, after all, and the Welsh band's up-for-anything, down-for-whatever aesthetic doesn't always translate, especially given their fondness for grand and confusing gestures. They've built a song around a recording of Paul McCartney chomping carrots and celery, penned a best-friends-forever ode to pet hamsters, and released a Welsh-language album (2000's Mwng).

The band haven't made it any easier for themselves withPhantom Power, which tempers the giddy IMAX ambition of 2001's Rings Around the World with some art-house despair. It's simultaneously joyous and joyless, all downloaded beats, downhearted lyrics ("Everything we knew has wasted away"), and down-the-hatch daring. "I need no guidance / Just your patience," Gruff Rhys sings on"The Undefeated," calm as a dead man walking. Then the song asks just how much patience you're willing to give, as steel drums slow-dance with pedal steel, horns hoist up a holla-back chorus, and everything falls apart amid drum-machine gunfire. Elsewhere, the band reprogram decades of pop history for iPod shuffle-play, and styles from electronica to country rock fade in and out like an old man's memory.

The gorgeous "Liberty Belle" tries to rub some of the tarnish off America's shining-city-on-a-hill rep; it's social commentary in the tradition of "Presidential Suite," Rings' ode to l'affaireLewinsky. But even when they're not weighing in on stateside current events, the spirit that motivates their mash-ups should be familiar-it's democracy in action. Though the Furries can't resist walking the high-concept high wire, they believe there's a more perfect union to be formed from the melding of wildly disparate ideas.

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