When I met Franz Ferdinand a year and a half ago at the beginning of their battle to beat the odds stacked against Anglo bands and sell the kind of records that in America rarely go further than indie-snob import bins, I had to first respond as a fan. So I offered my sealed eight-track cartridge of Sparks’ Propaganda, which singer Alex Kapranos excitedly claimed for himself, as he’d recently bought a cheap old BMW with a still-functioning eight-track player and had little more than a Cat Stevens tape for company.
Intent on joining the ranks of Talking Heads, the Smiths, Sparks, and other not so then-fashionable influences boasting legacies of pursuing art and hit singles with equal vigor, the thrift-shop-dapper Scots keep inching closer to actualizing Duran Duran’s famous goal, the one that summed up much of new wave’s original aspirations—to merge the Sex Pistols with Chic, an enterprise akin to combining the Monkees with Can and then crossing that with Roxy Music via Funkadelic. That holy hybrid demands not only freakish heaps of conceptualism, intellectual flair, and haberdashery, which many original new wavers possessed before the mid-’80s Thatcher-Reaganomics of greed and mullets took over, but also crazy amounts of chops, which the original disco-punks rarely demonstrated, even when Duran Duran and Talking Heads started absorbing actual Chic and Parliament members. Franz Ferdinand haven’t hit that perfect beat yet, but if this road-crazed, flagrantly ambitious unit continues to hone its instrumental skills at the current pace, it may. Near-constant touring, combined with a little Sony payola, has already made “Take Me Out” an anthem against which successive dance-rock hybrids will forever be measured.
For their efforts, these dancefloor terrorists snagged the gold disc Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd. could never grab, but returned to the studio just as those lesser Killers captured the hearts and iPods of the Good Charlotte/Ashlee Simpson set. Meanwhile, a slew of similarly bandwagonesque dance-punk bands sucked up major-label contracts that 20-odd years ago would’ve gone to the C-level bands of the MTV-mutated new wave diaspora. While modern rock stations switch formats or give in again to Nickleback, Staind, and other so not-modern instruments of corporate rock torture, Franz Ferdinand assume frontline status with You Could Have It So Much Better. Produced by American newbie Rich Costey, who previously knob-twiddled for the Mars Volta, My Chemical Romance, Audioslave, and Weezer, YCHISMB reflects Costey’s louder and brasher Rick Rubin associations. Like “Take Me Out,” the album’s ridiculously bouncy first single “Do You Want To” violates the typical verse-chorus- verse pop song structure with a lo-fi buzz. A nagging guitar figure doubled by a sassy “doot-doot-doot” refrain then crashes the party as the track’s sonics expand, as if switching from nostalgia-soaked sepia to gaudy Technicolor.
Building on dance music’s rhythms, dynamics, and structures with a fraction of its technology, the foursome play in each other’s sweaty pockets throughout the album, interacting first and overdubbing second. Bassist Bob Hardy, the least musically experienced member, improves most dramatically on YCHISMB, but most everything gets heftier, more brutal. Check the newly dense and vigorously interlocked kinetics in the opening cut, “The Fallen,” where Kapranos gets Dylan-verbose on off-kilter accents as the beefed-up band does the funky chicken like beat-savvy Pixies. Fond of alliterative, Sparks-worthy wordplay as well as brusque verbal litter, Kapranos spins angular abstraction. Rich with detail while remaining secretive, his atmospheric lyrics typically confess mostly to confuse: “If I like cocaine, I’m racing you/For organic fresh echinacea/One kick’s as good as another,” he asserts in the ranting “This Boy.” Featuring speedy piano but no drums, the wistful near-ballad “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” gallops on tiptoe, as if Costey had simply stripped from the mix drummer Paul Thomson and most of Nick McCarthy’s guitars. Similarly drumless and piano-led, “Fade Together” ambles further into woozy country-rock territory with echo-laden results that skew closer to the Kinks than to Kenny Chesney. The dancefloor-directed finale, “Outsiders,” breaks with its combustive predecessors to suggest the next album’s possible route. Cleaner, yet darker, the track’s shifting textures rattle along on a sure but peculiar syncopation, introducing spooky sustained electronics and other mysterious bits to the band’s familiar staccato shuffle. As much as they rein in their arrangements to include only the most urgent elements, these classic art-school rockers already strain to linger outside their self-imposed post-punk minimalism and pop-schooled populism. The next album will likely be wilder. For now, Franz Ferdinand celebrate harder.
Franz Ferdinand play Madison Square Garden October 15 and 16.