Apples and oranges 

SFA adn Tindersticks turn out two different beauties

Super Furry Animals
Phantom Power
Beggars Banquet

Super Furry Animals’ 2000 release, Rings Around The World, was one of the finest works to come across the big pond in quite some time. It received glowing reviews, secured Album of the Year honors in MOJO magazine and lodged itself comfortably among my personal Top 10 best releases, ever. But two results inevitably follow from so much overwhelmingly positive response: firstly, fans quickly come to expect something even better the next time around, and secondly, the praise compels record companies to pony up promotion dollars into the realm of hype overkill.

But this is where a band or artist generally bites it. Case in point: The Flaming Lips, whose Soft Bulletin snuck into the hearts of critics as a timeless masterpiece, handily snagging cult status while never breaking any chart records. So their label set the hype machine to stun for the Oklahoma band’s next release, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. It was glowing reviews as usual, etc., etc., but it wasn’t the best Lips I’ve heard. The anticipation far exceeded the product, which to me was something of a letdown.

So my anticipation for SFA’s Phantom Power was quite minimal. I mean, there’s no way in hell they could really better themselves after Rings, could they? Another lowered expectation arrived with the news that SFA had teamed up with producer Mario Calado (Beastie Boys), leading me to anticipate electronic overload, and raising fears of a “project” eating the band that started it (see also: Flaming Lips).

Well, strap a bib on me and let me eat my words: Phantom Power is really something else. SFA have attuned themselves to a more organic, sunnier sound, full of nostalgic medleys and easygoing arrangements, a la Love, Gene Clark, and the less obvious efforts of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Tunes like “Hello Sunshine,” “Sex, War & Robots,” “Bleed Forever” and “City Scrape Sky Baby” roll out like the evening tide over the sands. The jumping tunes of “Liberty Belle,” “Golden Retriever” and “Out Of Control” show SFA’s expanded pop roots, tendrilling into the weirder lost genres of the easier-listening side of music. But the surefire hit on this disc is the addictive “Venus and Serena,” (yes, about the Williams sisters): a show of emotional melodic perfection only a band like SFA could pull off.

And that’s the M.O. I expect from SFA: musical hooks galore, lyrical sarcasm heavy on the social responsibility, pure beauty in tunesmithery. Comparing this to Rings is like comparing perfect apples and perfect oranges. SFA has captured an intensely intimate sound, perfect for all seasons. Phantom Power is loaded with memories in waiting. Truly fantastic.

Waiting For The Moon
Beggars Banquet

The one Tindersticks show I was fortunate enough to witness (in Pontiac, Mich., of all places) was at a sizable bar that could hold a good 400 people. That the band didn’t fill it to anywhere near that capacity made the space seem that much bigger, and everything in it more surreal. The audience had the look of major music fans/record collectors—unassuming, sort of weird—the kind of crowd that’s geekily appreciative and undyingly loyal if they like you. A six-member mini-orchestra came on stage, simulating the atmosphere of an artsy high society event, but once the music started it was like looking into the souls of war orphans. Cue the weariest-sounding singer in modern music, and you’ve got the makings for a cake that’ll have the emotists of the world eating out of your hand. Tindersticks can tread the finest line between tragedy and beauty. Their music ambles at the slow, gentle pace of a gray day, of dirty city streets steaming after a downpour, of heartbreak at the café and falling painfully in love. To accuse them of too much consistency in these themes wouldn’t be fair—I couldn’t imagine them any other way.

The band’s previous offering, the excellent Can Our Love…, had all the groove of the early ’70s Philadelphia sound, but Waiting For The Moon pretty much explains the current mood: a bit more introverted, a beckoning to stay indoors, to look out the window and wait out the night. As bleak as that sounds, Tindersticks also get fairly climactic on certain songs, with intense string arrangements that wouldn’t be too far from soundtrack appeal (they’ve done two already). Singer/producer Stuart Staples’ distinctive and quivering baritone narrates as if he’s boozed up and leaning right over your shoulder. Opener “Until the Morning Comes” is straight out of the Sid & Nancy book of punk rock love, sweetly sung and gently strummed. “Say Goodbye to the City” is a hypnotic exercise that creepily marries more of that ’70s funk to a British Isles influence. “Sweet Memory” and “Trying to Find a Home” are (or would be, or should be) the hits, perfecto on the right hooks. As in past duets with Isabella Rossellini and the great Françoise Hardy, “Sometimes It Hurts” pairs Staples with the sweet-voiced Llasa de Sela, creating a modern take on the night-and-day combination of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra.

And so Tindersticks chalk up another beauty. It seems for them as effortless as wondering and waiting. A fine blessing, to be unafraid of the dark.

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