1/2 Franz Ferdinand (Domino, 2004)
You Could Have It So Much Better (Domino, 2005)
Tonight: Franz Ferdinand (Domino, 2009)
It was easy to be a little suspicious of Franz Ferdinand when they blazed across the pond in 2004. They had the perfect look (white belts, right-angled haircuts, carved-marble complexions), the perfect sound (dance-y Seventies post-punk), and the perfect amount of British press hype to assure a letdown. But the Glasgow lads were no mere hipster boomlet. On "Take Me Out," they took nervy Gang of Four beats and stabbing Fall riffs straight to American radio without diluting their ancestors' thorny menace. Singer Alex Kapranos probably didn't weigh eighty pounds soaking wet, but his venomous, lounge-lizard delivery gave Dadaist comes-ons like "Don't move, time is slow I say... take me out" an alluring sense of danger, the sound of a wee wolverine stalking our suburbs for fresh, pale flesh.
The genius of the band's excellent self-titled debut was that it pulled back the overheated tempos that often rendered fellow new wave revivalists like Bloc Party and Hot Hot Heat a hyper-active blur. The rhythmic precision, stinging riffs and cunning transitions made the tangy sentiments sink in — from the bracing kiss-off "Cheating On You," to the sloshed garage disco of "Auf Acshe," to the adorably decadent Adam and the Ants-style stomper "Shopping For Blood" to the firey boy-on-boy action of "Michael." An earlier generation of Scots post-punk bands like Orange Juice and Josef K had dabbled in mixing disco grooves with punk guitars, but Kap and Co seemed totally unburdened by punk's authenticity trap; they were fully at home shooting their darts of pleasure, singing "you can feel my lips undress your eyes," or (on "Dark of the Matinee") sidling up to fame with a sidelong glance. Their smirk was as sexy as their wink was as sexy as their ice-cold glare.
Unlike so many hot, young British bands in the 2000s, Franz didn't fall into the trap of following a great debut with a disc that prematurely tried to show that all the frothy fun was just a platform for seasoned sonic impressionism. You Could Have It So Much Better simply showcases a band expanding and deepening its sound by connecting their dance-rock to the mod mid-Sixties without getting fussy about it. On "Do You Want To" and "You're The Reason I'm Leaving," scraping guitars carry as much melodic heft as Kapranos increasingly refined tunes; the roiling "This Boy" nicks a title from the Beatles to rundown a rock star shopping list; "I'm Your Villain" slows things down as spaghetti western guitar backs Kapranos' best Ray Davies impression; and the music hall whimsy of "Eleanor Put Your Boots On" twists the melody from the Kinks' "Rosy Won't You Please Come Home" for a love letter to Alex's Brooklyn girlfriend.
The band went further outside the punk template on Tonight, letting synths muscle out guitars, finessing the baselines and glossing up the grooves. The result is a weird, woozy disc that gets inside the mind of a rake on the Saturday night prowl. Not that said rake's mind is all that complex: "Sometimes I think the stupidest things because I never wonder how the girl feels," Alex confides poutily on the ridiculously catchy "No You Girls," playing victim and predator in the same breath. Throughout, darkly contoured sex music evokes a hazy club-to-cab-to-sack odyssey. "Ulysses" segues from loose reggae skank into a sticky-icky Bernie Worrell keyboard line, "Send Him Away" follows a Kinks melody into a morass of dubby sonic churn, and "Lucid Dreams" meanders into squelchy techno territory. Kapranos isn't quite sharp enough with a decadent bon mot to hold his own with the Jarvis Cockers of the world, let alone Seventies Bowie or wide-lapel Mick. But part of his charm is his boyish ability to throw himself into every hook-up as if it promises total soul redemption, even if it usually ends with a lonely ride home in the guilt-ridden early morn.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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