You can’t go a month or two these days without hearing about yet another band of post punk revisionists that has come along, as young artists with a fixation on the sound of late ‘70s/early ‘80s new wave has supplanted the “new garage” fad of the last three years, and for good reason, as the music is clever, melodic, fashionable, and above all else, danceable. Yet no matter who comes along, the same question always comes up: “Are they better than Interpol?” Throughout 2003, the reigning kings of New York indie rock, were joined by a host of other, like-minded bands: among others, there were the shameless Cure clones The Rapture and Hot Hot Heat, the simpler, more easygoing Stills, and the talented, yet tragically underrated Elefant. As earnest as those bands are, though, nobody has come around with a record boasting the potential of scoring a big time hit. Until now, that is.
2003 was a terrible year for British rock, as the best new UK music has come from urban, hip-hop influenced artists like The Streets and Dizzee Rascal, while rock mainstays Radiohead and Blur merely went through the motions, releasing disappointingly bland albums. If it weren’t for the drunken charm of The Libertines (yeah, I know, technically a 2002 release), the goofy fun of The Darkness, and a very solid new album by Muse, there wasn’t much to get excited about, as far as Brit rock was concerned. Enter Scotland’s Franz Ferdinand, who in a matter of months, have already exploded in the UK, been deified by the British music press, and have signed a $1.5 million licensing deal with Epic Records in America.
Much has been made of Interpol’s homage to Ian Curtis and Joy Division in their music, and although Franz Ferdinand’s music is not as close to Interpol and Joy Division as some people have noted, their very odd choice of a band name echoes that of Joy Division. Of course, Joy Division took its name from the name used by Nazis for concentration camp brothels during World War II. Franz Ferdinand, likewise, is named after Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose 1914 assassination in Sarajevo ignited the first World War. Why a bunch of effete Glaswegian art students would name their hip rock band that is anybody’s guess.
So what does Franz Ferdinand bring to the table, besides the silly moniker? To put it simply, their new self-titled album is the most musically rich, catchy, smartly written “new new wave” record since Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights. However, the one thing that separates this band from the rest of their peers is, these boys can kick some serious ass. Unlike the majestic, chiming, echoing sounds of Interpol, Franz Ferdinand packs a huge wallop on record: the sound is booming at times, as jarring guitar licks by Nick McCarthy and guitarist/singer Alex Kapranos slice through the pulsating beats of drummer Paul Thomson. What dominates this album, though, is the bass playing of Bob Hardy. His melodic bass lines, situated right up front in the mix, almost drowning out the guitars, carry each song, ranging in style from dub-inspired sounds (think Paul Simonon of The Clash), to straight disco, to simpler, Buzzcocks style punk.
The songs themselves are just as varied, the band brashly displaying their range on the album. “Tell Her Tonight” starts off sounding inspired by Madness and Wire simultaneously, with its ska feel, and the sneered phrase, “But she saw it,” that ends every line, but it suddenly breaks into a melodic chorus that smacks of British rock circa 1965 (in fact, very similar to what The Coral is doing these days). “Auf Asche”, with its keyboard-driven melody, is all-out disco, while the melodic punk of “Cheating on You”, conversely, is much more aggressive guitar rock. On “Darts of Pleasure”, the song erupts, from out of nowhere, into a German chorus (“Ich heisse Superfantastisch! Ich trinke Schampus mit Lachsfisch!”), for seemingly no reason at all. The fascinating “This Fire” combines a slick post punk guitar riff, Thomson’s relentless dance beat, brilliant ‘60s style vocal harmonies in the verses, and a contagious rave-up chorus of “This fire is out of control/ I’m going to burn this city/ Burn this city!”
If there’s one song that has a chance at breaking the band in North America, it’s the sensational single “Take Me Out”, which peaked at Number Two in the UK earlier this year. Opening with a Who style flourish of power chords, the song kicks off into a fast, Strokes-inspired melody, as Kapranos cryptically sings, “I’m just a cross-hair/ I’m just a shot away from you.” Then, less than a minute in, the song abruptly downshifts, as Thomson guides the band to a more deliberate pace, as the quartet launches into a relentless, pounding garage rock-meets-disco stomp for the rest of the way. Ridiculously simple and undeniably catchy, it’s one of the most enjoyable rock songs to come out in the past year.
As catchy as those songs are, Franz Ferdinand’s real strength is in Kapranos’s lyrics. Several songs on the album are quite straightforward, even bordering on banal, but there are moments of sheer passion, brilliance, and wit, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the glory days of Britpop (think Pulp’s Different Class and Blur’s The Great Escape). “Jacqueline” begins with a McCartney-like acoustic interlude and a character sketch depicting the boredom of office life (“Jacqueline was 17/ Working on a desk/ When Ivor/ Peered above a spectacle/ Forgot that he had wrecked a girl”) and the joy of days off (“It’s always better on holiday”), as Kapranos facetiously declares at the end, “I’m alive/ And how I know it/ But for chips and for freedom/ I could die.” Meanwhile, there’s the erotically charged “Darts of Pleasure” (“You can feel my lips undress your eyes”) and “Michael”, which has Kapranos obsessing about a man, his physical desire made palpable (“You’re the boy with all the leather hips/ Sticky hair, sticky hips/ Stubble on my sticky lips”). Most startling is “Dark of the Matinee”, as Kapranos shows a Jarvis Cocker-esque ability to depict teen lust and longing, as two uniformed kids (boy/girl? boy/boy? The ambiguous sexuality is delicious) scramble through the rigid, echoing halls of their school in search of some privacy, somewhere, anywhere: “You take your white finger/ Slide the nail under the top and bottom buttons of my blazer/ Relax the fraying wool, slacken ties/ And I’m not to look at you in the shoe, but the eyes, find the eyes.”
Although there are times when you find yourself wishing there were more songs on the album with such strong lyrical content, and despite the presence of “Auf Asche”, which is a bit of an awkward fit, this is still a very taut, confident album. Franz Ferdinand show refreshing audacity on their first full-length release, and with the talent these boys possess, the Interpol comparisons should soon be a distant memory. This excellent album is just the beginning, and it’s enough to convince people there’s still hope for British rock yet.