2003 / Music

Review: Super Furry Animals, New Pornographers Try To Recover From Success

Neko Case Group Top Other New Releases

Read The Reviews: Super Furry Animals | New Pornographers

It’s typically called the sophomore slump.

After an artist (in some cases a new one) has a hit album, they usually face enormous creative and commercial obstacles trying to repeat and surpass their first success.

The question: What does a band do when their last album was a classic?

This week, we’ll look at three artists — Super Furry Animals, Grandaddy and the New Pornographers — who’ve had to struggle with trumping their best work to date. Keep reading to find out if they were able to shake off the trappings of success and succeed again.

Super Furry Animals “Phantom Power”

Most bands are reviled for the kind of ambition and musical grandness that the Super Furry Animals strutted with on their last record, 2001’s “Rings Around The World.” Such audacity is typically greeted with an abrupt crosscheck by fans and critics, and would signal the point when the story arc of their episode of “Behind The Music” would take a turn for the worse.

Photo: Epic Records

Photo: Epic Records

“Rings Around The World” wasn’t that kind of vanity project. Although it barely spans two discs, the surrealistic pop songs on “Rings Around The World” encompass so many different musical styles and are so panoramic in scope — each track is stuffed with instruments and psychedelic sound effects — that seem to go on much longer than they do. Luckily (for them and us), the band took as much time crafting sweeping melodies that could drive home such rambling creations as they did layering the music.

Now, the Welsh quintet has a new struggle on their hands: having bent and broken pop songwriting structures with “Rings,” the Furries’ new album, “Phantom Power,” has them wrestling with getting the genie back into the bottle.

While “Phantom Power” doesn’t askew the band’s penchant for eclecticism, it is a far more disciplined record. Viewed in its entirety, this strategy for the album seems flawed though, especially when it seems the band is having trouble consistently building the kind of oblique melodies that they used to. Blame it on creative burnout from “Rings” or perhaps the result of recording a followup so quickly after completing the last album’s touring and promotional duties, but many of the songs on “Phantom Power” are harder to connect with.

Sometimes, and despite the ingredients involved, the songs just don’t take off. The first single, “Golden Retriever,” has the booming drumming, jagged guitar rhythms and a valiant attempt at a singalong chorus that might build to a sense of exhilaration, but doesn’t. There’s nothing to hang on to as it breezes by.

Just as disappointing is “Out Of Control.” The heaviest tune on the album, the song doesn’t move beyond the chorus’ pattern of sizzling guitar chords and lyric’s slogans alluding to oil and the Middle East don’t really say anything.

Not all the tracks fall flat. Opening track “Hello Sunshine” is the kind of unabashed pop the band has toyed with before, although never so blatantly. Singer Gruff Rhys’ multi-tracked voice is both warm and easy to follow.

Equally engaging is the fuzz guitar-filled “Venus And Serena.” Unlike its companions, this song builds to a crescendo. The band has insisted thatthe song’s title comes from a pair of pet tortoises who are featured in the lyrics (and not the similarly named tennis-playing sisters), but the real subject of the track is the amusing conversation between a wily father and his advice-seeking son. “Holy bombs make holy holes/Holy holes make homeless moles,” is part of the wisdom the son is left to make sense of.

“Phantom Power” also has the band adding new colors to its palette.
“Valet Parking” merges flamenco guitar and electronic beats (think of Beck’s “Tropicalia”). “Sex, War And Robots” is a traditional country lament about a fractured relationship that wallows in grief thanks to a pedal steel guitar. Although done like a classic Nashville weeper — with lyrics like “if tears could kill/I’d be a long time gone” — the song’s emotionality gets a boost at the close from a piano and strings.

These tracks are the exceptions, however. Perhaps the simplicity and directness of the songs on “Phantom Power” stem not from a conscious choice by the band to not duplicate the opuses of “Rings Around The World,” but because they frequently were already struggling to make compelling melodies as the cornerstones to these songs.

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New Pornographers “Electric Version”

Supergroups are always tenuous creations destined to have a short life. The majority rarely last more than an album (Golden Smog, the Traveling Wilburys are exceptions). Maybe human nature is to blame. Living up to the term’s very meaning, most rock star members of a supergroup eventually rationalize that if they can stand on their own, why should they share control and their best material with others?

Defying the odds and perhaps egotism, the New Pornographers have not only stuck it out but thrived together. Made up of various musicians from Vancouver, Canada’s rock scene (the most famous among them is alt-country siren Neko Case), the band has just released an album that tops their critically acclaimed 2000 debut album. In fact, “Electric Version” is one of the strongest collections of power pop songs in years.

Led by primaryvocalist/guitarist Carl Newman of underground rock group Zumpano, the New Pornographers have culled a friendlier version indie rock that combines post-punk guitar chords with sweetened vocal harmonies and quirky keyboard lines. Many of these songs are the kind of uplifting singles that Matthew Sweet would’ve been churning out in his early ’90s heyday had he not beefed up his music by employing the raucous services of guitarists Robert Quine and Television’s Richard Lloyd.

Back in 2000, Newman told a Canadian newspaper the aim of this supergroup was to be “ridiculously poppy.” With “Electric Version,” he and the band have finally achieved their goal in the most glorious fashion. Inspired by their formative influences from the ’60s and ’70s, the band members have churned out songs beaming with exuberance, precise yet exhilarated and carefree.

Some of the record’s brightest moments come when their pushing the beat. High-speed songs like the title track and “It’s Only Divine Right” are propelled by driving guitar and drumming patterns while cheesy, Moog-like keyboards and Newman’s tender croon glide atop the melodies.

The most surprising aspect of “Electric Version” is Case’s singing contributions, which are absent any of the twang of her solo music. For most of the album, she is cleverly held in the shadows and supplies only supporting vocals on mid-tempo rockers like “The End Of Medicine” and “The New Face Of Zero And One.” When she does step forward to lead, like on “The Laws Have Changed” or “All For Swinging Around You,” Case’s bell-like voice injects fresh energy into the tracks and the album.

This kind of energy that can arise from music is the subject for the album’s best cut, “From Blown Speakers.” The song is a profession of their love for music set to a stiff chord progression that then kicks itself into a state of pop euphoria for the chorus. The band seems to be declaring their very reason for why they remain a band when Newman and Case harmonize on the refrain, “It came out magical/Out from blown speakers.”

Sure, these guys could concentrate their energies on their own projects, but as “Electric Version” demonstrates, it’s the music that they create together that keeps them a star-studded unit and individually coming back for more.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2003 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

©Copyright 2003 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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