Just a quick prelude before the meat of the matter a bit later on. I’ve literally just walked in from having gone to see Franz Ferdinand at the Hammersmith Apollo (now inexplicably re-christened the HMV Apollo). It were brilliant! The band were, unsurprisingly, very tight, and enjoyed a great rapport with the crowd. Songs new and old received a warm reception, the new ones in particular benefiting from the energy of the live environment. My goodness do they have a mighty rhythm section, capable of buoying those killer hooks for mass crowd singalongs.
Back in 2004, I walked into HMV and was faced with the choice of buying either The Killers’ Hot Fuss or Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut. Thank goodness I endorsed the latter. While their contemporaries have meandered through the wilderness of Americana before pandering to their love of 80s guilty pleasures, Franz Ferdinand’s career to date has been elusive, concise and, most importantly, of a consistently high quality. To those who feel hoodwinked by 2005’s sophomore effort, You Could Have It So Much Better, I would proffer that while their debut was considerably sleeker and tauter, the second release was of comparable quality, only brasher, grittier and angrier. It was recorded in a hurry – often seen as a curse – but I would maintain that its more developed song structures showed greater depth to the band’s abilities.
Step into 2009 and, against a backdrop of mediocre indie and attractive female electro-popsters, how does the Scottish quartet’s latest effort fare? Much has been said of the intervening years, in which the band experimented with creaky synths, Afrobeat grooves and shiny pop producers, but has any of this actually surfaced in Tonight: Franz Ferdinand? One thing that can safely be said is that Tonight… is a considerably leaner beast than the last; more focused on the dancefloor than society’s ills. Tracks like No You Girls and the opener, Ulysses, ride on football terrace choruses and hooks while successfully navigating the waters of synthesiser experimentation. When the band deal a heavier hand, as in the case of What She Came For and Twilight Omens, the songs have a pleasing blend of retro glam and roadhouse eruptions. Treated piano gives way to well-produced rhythm-led stomps that are attractive and memorable, if not instantly history-rewriting.
Conceptually, frontman Alex Kapranos reckons Tonight is a depiction of a typical lads’ night out, from the discovery of a new drug (Ulysses), through the naïvety of first love (No You Girls), to the euphoria of the dancefloor (Live Alone, which channels Blondie and Abba through a Glaswegian burr). In this respect, the album is bang on the money: far from being a discrete set of radio-ready singles, the group are clever enough to know the benefits of pacing and narrative arc, thus the album unfolds true to Kapranos’ cheeky and insightful lyrics. The climax of this night on the tiles arrives halfway through undoubted centrepiece Lucid Dreams, which, isolated from the context of the album, sounds wildly experimental and strangely lurching. In context, this eight-minute marathon represents the transformation from innocence into hedonism, as a krautrock groove makes way for four minutes of Moroder-esque acid-house freakout.
After the peak must come the comedown, surely, and the album delivers here, too. The loping, sideways Dream Again is reminiscent of Tom Waits at his addled best, while closer Katherine Kiss Me is a partial reprise of No You Girls, re-imagined as a acoustic troubadour’s farewell. On paper, these varied genres sound wildly disparate, but the cohesion of an album can come from lyrical themes too, as shown in this instance. By allowing the events of the night to take hold of the album, Kapranos delivers a resounding finger to those who would doubt their breadth in songwriting skills. Tonight may lack the instant appeal of the band’s debut, and the songs may not stand the test of time in the same way, but it offers an intriguing insight into their less obvious influences – a key example being Send Him Away, which apes Vampire Weekend in its pursuit of African poly-rhythms and psych-funk grooves.
Do Franz Ferdinand remain relevant in the aftermath of the scene they helped to revive? Not really, but I would argue that that scene has gone stale to such a degree that no band with any artistic integrity would even want to. From here on, the band could go in myriad directions, provided they can keep on delivering the hooks and lyrical invention and wit that have kept them a cut above the rest of the pack thus far. Long may Nick McCarthy’s Moogs and Korgs fart and groan!
… are good. I’ll post a review of both Tonight: Franz Ferdinand and Merriweather Post Pavilion a bit later but, for the moment, here are some initial thoughts.
Tonight is crisply produced and comes with the right kind of aesthetic that Franz Ferdinand have been hinting at, but they only ever plunge head-first into one of these new directions on one track, the 8-minute Moroder-aping “Lucid Dreams”, which features an extended synth workout. The rest of the album is solidly written, with characteristically catchy hooks and typically insightful, witty lyrics. What will probably strike me to a greater extent on further listens is the pacing and structure of the album. Certainly, it appears to run on a continual upward slope, heading towards the peak of a night out, which occurs during the aforementioned “Lucid Dreams”. The final two tracks definitely represent the post-night comedown, their being much more blissful and hungover, and also more sincere. Beyond that, I’ve yet to gauge a true understanding of the structure during the first half, except that “Ulysses” is an invented drug, and that “No You Girls” cleverly inverts the naïvety of first love halfway through the song.
Merriweather Post Pavilion has absolutely astonishing production. Far from the murkiness I was beginning to associate with Animal Collective, the album fizzes and sparkles and, most importantly, sends thunderous quakes of bass through my subwoofer. That’s important, because it appears to accentuate the more dance-orientated direction the band have taken. It’s not necessarily music to dance to, just music that bears more than a passing resemblance to dance-music forefathers. The songs themselves are complex in structure, with a myriad of samples and synths that somehow don’t ever get lost in a fog of meandering. Though this is their longest proper album yet, the songs appear more focused and rooted, though they don’t observe conventional pop song structures. Lyrically too, the album sees AC mature the themes first evoked on Strawberry Jam – those of childhood innocence; the simple love of others; and the essential mysterious wonderment of being alive. They’re well-expressed through not overly catchy lyrics, with minimal sonic meddling, and the whole combination of music and voice coalesces best of all on “My Girls” and the closer, “Brother Sport”.
More to follow, definitely.
As Michael points out, I’ve so far refused the temptation of listening to the preview of Tonight: Franz Ferdinand on their MyFaceSpaceBook, and I think my reasons are pretty justified. For one thing, my pre-ordered 2-disc edition of the album has already been dispatched from Amazon (along with Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion). This immediately impressed me – I don’t think I’ve ever pre-ordered an album on Amazon before; if I do want to buy an album as soon as it’s released, I usually prefer to visit my local HMV (other record stores are available!) – because I should hopefully receive the album not too long after tomorrow, which is probably sooner than I could have hoped to visit a record store, judging by my packed schedule for the next few days.
I’ve been anticipating Franz Ferdinand’s third album for a very long time: in fact, pretty much as soon as I had finished listening to their second album, and I’m really hoping it’s been worth the lengthy gestation. Experience tells me that, when my expectations are so high, there is no better way of releasing all the suspense than to wait until I have the physical embodiment of the album in my hands, ready to be played in super stereo, the way it was intended, as opposed to the low bitrate/dodgy ethics of a MySpace listening party or a BitTorrent leak. My case in point is Muse’s Black Holes And Revelations, which was probably my most eagerly-awaited album of 2006. Though I did end up bussing it to HMV on the day of its release – and then promptly heading off to school – by that point, I had already heard it from half a dozen different sources and, in many ways, it wasn’t the best preparation. I had heard it so much, and heard so much about it, that when I actually listened to the thing properly, there were no surprises. I already knew the synthesiser trickery employed in several songs; I was already aware of the conspiracy theories referenced in the lyrics. It wasn’t actually that much fun, and so that’s why I’ve decided that abstinence is the best preparation this time round.
Having written all that, I must confess that, by some indistinct means, I have heard the album-version of “Lucid Dreams”, which is already being referred to as the highlight of the album, and clear proof that the band can take their music-to-make-girls-dance in a faithful electronic direction. Personally, I think it’s a tremendous piece of music, initially swaggering, then mind-boggling, finally hip-shaking and dancefloor-quaking. It’s not a million miles away from the works of Moroder and the like, but it’s still refreshing to hear an updating of the synth-tastic dance music of the 70s from a band who really do know their stuff. Judging by the reviews though, the rest of the album doesn’t entirely live up to the heady heights of “Lucid Dreams”, but I’m still hopeful.
AND IN OTHER NEWS
May I recommend Wilco’s “Impossible Germany”, taken from last year’s Sky Blue Sky album. The band’s sixth studio album was a much mellower affair than usual, taking much more inspiration from more traditional country music. It was critically panned, but one of the highlights in many reviewers’ eyes was “Impossible Germany”. It’s utterly gorgeous, and really shows off the lilting guitar work of Nels Cline. However, to gauge a true impression of Wilco’s more experimental, adventurous work, you can’t do better than getting a copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which was released in 2002 after various sagas between the band and their former record label. It’s extraordinary.