Super Furry Animals at the Phoenix Concert Theatre (410 Sherbourne), tonight (Thursday, February 5). $15. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
The super furry animals hadn't planned on making their latest recording a concept album, especially after their electro experiment Rings Around The World turned out to be just as fan-flummoxing as it was critic- confounding. They intended to return to the basics of a guitars- and drums-forward rock 'n' roll album. At least that was the plan until some terrorists crashed a couple of commercial jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
The Furries responded with a burst of politically charged psychedelia tempered with a charming poignancy and characteristic sense of whimsy.
There are no shouted anti-war slogans on Phantom Power (XL/Beggars Group), and other than a few pointed references such as "drowning in your oil wells" and a "gulf of misery" in the song Liberty Belle, there's really no overt commentary on recent world events.
"Our lyrics are usually drawn from domestic observations," explains singer/songwriter Gruff Rhys from their Cardiff studio, "but on Phantom Power, what was happening around the world crept into our daily lives through the fear-mongering media.
"Conflict is the underlying theme on the album. The song Liberty Belle was directly inspired by the conflict created by the new Westernized imperial force, but The Piccolo Snare, for example, is about the futility of the Falklands War, where people from my country were sent to their death so that British prime minister Margaret Thatcher could win an election."
Part of the magic of Phantom Power lies in how the Super Furry Animals have made everything sound so engagingly snappy that the pop songcraft can be appreciated purely for its superficial sweetness, despite the strong political undercurrent.
Instead of finger-pointing and naming names, the Furries have used golden retrievers and turtles named Venus and Serena to create a delightfully surreal song cycle. It's the most coherent, captivating and complete album they've ever made. With Phantom Power they've got their very own What's Going On.
"Actually, we were originally going to call the album Father Father. Not only because of that whole What's Going On vibe, but I had this idea of writing all the songs using this guitar tuning of D-A-D-D-A-D.
"Eventually the concept started getting in the way, and we included a few other songs in different tunings, but they're still in the key of D. The whole album is in D.
"We still wanted to have all the songs come from a personal perspective so I wrote Golden Retriever about the tension between my girlfriend's two dogs."
How the song Venus & Serena - named for the tennis-playing Williams sisters - fits into Rhys's personal aesthetic viewpoint isn't quite as transparent, particularly because the song deals with a child raised by wolves who is found in the woods and taken in by a human family.
"It's purely autobiographical," Rhys insists. "When the boy in the song is taken from the forest, he brings along his two turtle friends as company, which his adoptive parents name Venus and Serena.
"It turns out that he can relate better to the turtles than his new family. Sometimes animals seem to have more wisdom than humans, especially in this age of terror."
Evidently the Furries have more than enough raw material left over from the Phantom Power session to make a good start on the follow-up, although Rhys is thinking of making a key change.
"Recently I found out that the Earth and the rest of the universe resonates in F sharp," enthuses Rhys, "so we're thinking that if we can record all the songs for the next album in the key of F sharp, we can make the world a more unified place... and maybe even end famine and war, too!"