Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #84: Franz Ferdinand (2004)

The first indie rock record on our chart is the debut album from Scottish band Franz Ferdinand, who set the standard for 21st-century indie pop-rock which all subsequent indie bands have sought to emulate.

The four-piece comprised of Alex Kapranos, Nick McCarthy, Bob Hardy and Paul Thompson, formed in 2001, when Kapranos and Hardy began playing together in Glasgow. McCarthy joined after meeting the two at a party. A guitarist and classically trained pianist, McCarthy originally wanted to try out on the drums, helped on by the fact that Thompson, ex-drummer with 1990s indie band Yummy Fur, wanted to try out guitar. But their positions soon swapped and the band began gigging. In 2003 they were spotted by Domino Records, who signed them and released a debut EP, Darts Of Pleasure.

'Jacqueline' gives the first indication of what sets both the band and the album apart. Unlike other indie bands - from the pleasantly aggressive Hard-Fi to the disgracefully shouty Cribs - Franz Ferdinand has a witty and intellectual feel to its lyrics. This is obvious even with the opening lines:

Jacqueline was seventeen, working on a desk when I-
vor peered above his spectacle
Forgot that he had wrecked a girl

You would not expect such poetry from a band so commercial and easy on the ears - as Kapranos admitted in 2007, "It’s always pop. Franz Ferdinand has always been pop."¹ After a very gentle and melodic opening, the bass guitar and drums kicks in and then McCarthy and Kapranos let rip with a series of razor sharp chords. What had been a mild-mannered folkish number with ulterior motives becomes a 21st-century stadium rocker. Lines like It's always better on holiday/ So much better on holiday/ That's why we only work when/ We need the money are both a direct appeal to their teenage audience and a summary of this generation's attitude.

'Tell Her Tonight' is more awkward and standard fare. With its repetitive verse structure and humdrum 60s chorus, it doesn't invoke the same emotional response. In what could be loosely called the middle-eight, Kapranos sounds so Teutonic and nasal that it becomes off-putting. McCarthy's chords are short, sharp and sub-standard when we consider the skill demonstrated on 'Jacqueline'.

We now come to 'Take Me Out'. This is not only the best track, it is an anthem for the 21st century. The chord progressions are sharper, the lyrics more memorable and the change in tempo and time signature at about 0:53 is on a sublime level only touched by the likes of 'Money'. The remainder of the song is breathtaking, toe-tapping and infectiously catchy. You will find it very hard not to stomp your feet, bang your head or air guitar to this superbly constructed song. While McCarthy works wonders with his strumming, Thompson's off-beat strokes add a wonderfully avant-garde touch. He is a very underrated drummer; though his skills are better showcased on You Can Have It So Much Better (2005), the signs are already there.

'The Dark Of The Matinée' manages to pretty much sustain this quality, again incorporating a well-executed tempo change. This is a love song which takes a welcome snipe at the vacuous pop and even more vacuous 'celebrities' emerging from the reality TV machine. The middle section is especially caustic:

So I'm on BBC2 now
Telling Terry Wogan how I made it and
What I made is unclear now
But his deference is, and his laugter is

With another infection chorus and good bass work - which is so often overlooked on indie records - this was another Top 10 hit simply because it is so well put together and sustains both musical prowess and contemporary relevance.

'Auf Asche' is the first truly strange track on the record. As shown by their videos, Franz Ferdinand are fascinated by 1920s avant-garde, and this is the first time this takes centre stage. There are hints in the spacious piano of an Eno soundscape - indeed, if Kapranos were any less distinctive, this may have been confused for a Bowie outtake from the Berlin era. There are no pop hooks either, but this is a cleverer and more complex song, so this doesn't really apply. With themes of broken love and isolation, and Christian references towards the end, this is a very interesting piece which would be an interesting thread to develop on later albums.

Having set an ever more ambitious and progressive tone, the band lose focus on both 'Cheating On You' and 'This Fire'. Both could be unfairly described as sell-outs - they are entirely built around catchy and repeating riffs - i.e. hooks - and the lyrics are relatively trite. 'Cheating On You' goes nowhere; you get the point of the song by the end of the first verse, or the first chorus if you're slower or more tolerant. 'This Fire' tries harder, with a good combination of Thompson's cymbals and McCarthy's squeaky riffs, but soon this collapses into their attempts at being lite-Muse. This doesn't get off the ground and they spend the remaining minutes wasting our time going around in circles, unsure of when is the time to stop.

'Darts Of Pleasure' manages to synthesise, at least partially, the conflicting media of aggressive, outspoken indie rock and quieter, avant-garde ostention. How? Largely through Kapranos' delivery and Thompson's drumming, both of which are highly intelligent. The song sounds like someone has taken 'Auf Asche' and 'Take Me Out', copied the best parts and blended them perfectly together. And, incidentally, the German at the end is one of the first incidencies in British music where using a foreign language for part of a song actually works.

'Michael' is pure guitar pop, coming from a band who could be loosely described as 'Blur with enthusiasm', or more accurately, 'Better than Blur'. The song is about a friend of the band who got drunk and started dancing effeminately at a party. Kapranos may not be Morrissey, but he succeed admirably in conveying the homoerotic impulse of the song in his lyrics and his delivery. The band sound confident, rocky and full of energy. There are some lovely harmonies reminiscent of The Beatles from McCarthy, who does himself resemble a young Sir Paul.

'Come On Home' is another well-crafted song with an American feel to it. Indeed you could be forgiven for turning down the volume prematurely for assuming that this was a country ballad purely by the sound of Kapranos' guitar. Hardy underscores him very well in the verses, while Thompson keeps things going well and McCarthy staves off country comparisons by some simple yet splendid synthesiser work - another avenue to pursue on future albums, should they so choose.

The album would be very good if 'Come On Home' had been the closer. But, unfortunately as it turns out, the band have one more offering. '40'' is too loose to pass off properly. Kapranos is trying to be clever with his lyrics - perhaps too clever, as after the initial few impressive lines it degenerates first into a 60s 'la la la' filler, then an organised studio jam with little sense of direction. What a shame.

Universally praised when it came out, Franz Ferdinand clearly deserves a lot of the praise it was given. The production is excellent, bringing out the four instruments as a collective unit, instead of four opposing war machines. The songs, with a few exceptions, are good not just because they are catchy, but because they are intelligent, arty and have a subtle wittiness that you don't see in many 21st century bands. It is also very bold for introducing part-way through into the mix a series of instruments and influences which could prove successful on later efforts. Above all, the real significance of Franz Ferdinand is an historical one; in years to come it will be the record which relaunced the indie quest for the charts long after Oasis had passed their self-by date. Though a little rough around the edges, it is a worthy addition to any record collection.

3.73 out of 5

¹ Accessed on July 26 2007.

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