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Child’s play
The naive pop of Super Furry Animals

Super Furry Animals’ lead vocalist and songwriter, Gruff Rhys, has been around long enough to have learned a thing or two about fronting a band. But there’s a naive innocence about him that brings to mind an excited child. His large eyes and whimsical smile recall a tot lolling in a playpen; his slow, humorous responses are candid and uncomplicated. When I offer him a stick of Dentyne Ice, he says, "Thanks, but what does it do?"

Gruff has come to New York to promote Super Furry Animals’ new CD, Phantom Power (Beggars/XL), which came out last month. It’s the sixth full-length addition to an impressive body of work from Wales’s most prolific pop band. From 1997’s Radiator (Creation) through 1999’s Guerrilla (Sony) to 2001’s Rings Around the World (Epic), the quintet have made visionary rock music filled with fantastic lyrics and gorgeous instrumentation. They’ve explored everything from electronica to country music, Bacharach-esque chamber pop to guitar-driven glam rock. And Rhys’s lyrics have touched on everything from gangsters and fornicating presidents to interstellar pollution and right-wing death cults. But the one element that ties all of Super Fury Animals’ recordings together is the band’s ability to generate unforgettable melodies.

"Phantom Power is the most breezy album we have ever done," Gruff argues. "Daft noises scattered throughout the album. It’s summery. There were lots of gigantic seagulls flying around the studio. It is not as heavy a listen as Rings Around the World. The songs are shorter and more concise, with the exception of the seven-minute ones."

Phantom Power is indeed more charming than Rings Around the World. The Beach-Boys-meet-Herb-Alpert cinematic interludes are still there, as are the buzzing techno rockers and the hooting country send-ups. But there’s a quieter, more intimate quality to the new album. " ‘Sex, War & Robots’ has an old cowboy sitting on a bench in a deserted town with sagebrush flying past," Gruff says of one of the new album’s best tracks. "He gets on a train taking him to visit his wife’s grave. Then he goes to his shack and dies."

Gruff’s descriptions of other tunes aren’t any more straightforward. He confirms that "Venus and Serena" was inspired by the famous tennis-playing siblings. But before long, he’s off on another tangent. "Here, a boy is abandoned and raised by wolves, then is discovered by a family, and he names his pet turtles Venus and Serena. You see a boy emerging from a cave, then you see him in a suburban home stroking his pet turtles in the garden. It is about a kid who can communicate better with his pets than with his parents. Often animals seem wiser than humans. It is not about Venus and Serena, but they have beautiful, cosmic names, and they are extremely powerful people. We use dumb pop lyrics that rhyme. It is about creating a feeling."

There are, however, more serious moments on Phantom Power, songs that deal with war, urban congestion, and other world problems. "The Undefeated" even has an angry undercurrent, as the band chant, "They’re so shallow, the undefeated . . . " "Growing up in Wales with a soccer team that always loses, you get that sense of overcoming defeat," Rhys says by way of explanation. "You see the great soccer nations of the earth and you have to adopt a sense of superiority to them. It is like you have to lose with pride and get used to that. There is a shallowness to victory."

Gruff does allow that since he wrote that song, the Wales football team has started to win. But he also alludes to a war that has been declared over yet seems to be dragging on. In that sense, "The Undefeated" is about anything but soccer.

Issue Date: August 29 - September 4, 2003
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