Perhaps this is the saddest commentary about the apathy of American popular musicians, or about the stranglehold corporate entities have on radio right now. The best protest songs in the wake of the Iraqi conflict come from a band of Welsh oddballs willfully influenced by late-period Beach Boys -- as much Carl and Dennis as Brian. The Super Furry Animals make quirky, nuance pop.
"Liberty Belle," from the new Super Furry record Phantom Power, for instance, is as charming as it is powerful. The song, propelled by swift drumming and singer Gruff Rhys' gentle croon, equates the U.S.'s military power to a seductress "singing out across the sea," prompting everyone to sing along, though she's "way out of key." That's certainly Ray Davies enough. But then she alienates her beaus, causing a "gulf of misery." By song's end, "she's drowning in her oil wells/As the ashes fly from New York City/Past the grimy clouds above New Jersey." In the course of three minutes, we enjoy an old-school British pop song that subversively gives the most efficient take yet on September 11.
With "Piccolo Snare," the band segues into the surreal, packing images of red blood seas, sky hawks and faint gunshots into late '60s radio-ready psychedelia, bordering at times on parody of the Moody Blues. Here, it equates President Bush to a phantom watching soldiers wrapped in "tarnished flags." Rhys resurrects the jarring phantom imagery for the otherwise unengaging punk-up "Out of Control," a paradox that makes sense. Like most bands teeming with this many ideas, the Super Furry Animals slip in and out of focus, which makes them maddening. And like 2001's Rings Around the World, Phantom Power eventually runs out of gas, losing its tuneful strength about two-thirds of the way through and devolving into repetitive, boring junk.
Until then, however, the band is heroic in its exploration of pop hooks, electronic accouterments and provocative agenda-setting, soberly turning our president into an enemy figure and finding other creative ways ("Venus & Serena," "Sex, War & Robots") to attack a Western culture run amok.