Super Furry Animals

Phantom Power

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With Rings Around the World, Super Furry Animals took a stab at a streamlined, big-budget album, complete with guest stars and cameos. It was accomplished and accomplished what it set out to do -- namely, elevate the Furries' critical standing, making them a mainstay of Mojo readers and opening some doors in American magazines, who had previously ignored the brilliant Welsh quintet. Nevertheless, it was their least-interesting set of music released to date, often sounding constrained by its polished widescreen aspirations (not to mention its similarly cleaned-up, simplified political stance and lyrics), so it comes as no little relief that SFA loosens up on the sequel to Rings, the superbly titled Phantom Power. Teaming up with producer Mario Caldato, Jr., who helmed the Beastie Boys' comeback, Check Your Head, the Furries come up with their fuzziest record yet, abandoning the Technicolor gloss of Rings for a hazy, slow-rolling collection of elastic pop songs. Caldato facilitates the return of dance beats and hints of electronica, sometimes recalling Guerrilla in its arrangements, but his biggest contribution is to give the record a bit of dirt, grounding this music in reality. This is a mixed blessing, since it means that Phantom Power never takes off the way Radiator or Mwng or even Fuzzy Logic did in its sheer exuberance. This earth-bound feeling is all the more palpable because SFA's sensibilities are still in line with the streamlined attitudes of Rings Around the World. Their different influences and ideas don't intertwine the way they used to; they exist as separate songs. These songs are frequently very good, and display many of the band's attributes, from Gruff Rhys' ethereal yet warm voice and his sweet, enveloping melodies to the group's effortless eclecticism, grounded in neo-psychedelia but encompassing much more, including a new fascination with country-rock. It's a very good listen and there's a certain appeal to the dreamy haze of the production, particularly when it's goosed along by sighing harmonies and sweet steel guitars, sounding something like a Californian Magical Mystery Tour. That, of course, is a good thing, and Phantom Power is a very good album (and, again, compared to many of SFA's peers in 2003, it is far ahead of the pack), but it does lack some of the things that made earlier Super Furry Animals so exhilarating -- the grit, the wild abandon, the absurdity, and the sheer unpredictability, where it was impossible to tell what would happen next. Perhaps this is the inevitable result of maturity, which does make one a little bit older and a little bit slower, but it's still hard not to miss. But, at least they're still making good records, unlike some bands who enter their mature phase.

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