Not long after the turn of the millennium, someone somewhere decided that Britpop was due for a revival. The 1990s were over, and with it all of the chart-storming singles and controversial headlines that fueled the music press’ fascination with the Blur vs. Oasis rivalry. But by 2003, people were missing the ’90s already. Around this time, a flurry of English, Irish, and Scottish bands were signed to major labels and shot their way to stardom both in their homelands and around the world. When asked about how he felt about all of these post-punk/new wave revivalists name-dropping early XTC as an influence, Andy Partridge dryly referred to this new cluster of bands as “Future Dogs Die in Kaiser Ferdinand’s Hot Hot Car Party”.
Regardless of how some legends may have felt, fame and fortune came calling and did their best to separate the wheat from the chaff. One band that did its best to muscle through all the discouraging calls of “one-hit wonders!” and “copy cats!” was the Scottish band Franz Ferdinand. Their first album caught everyone’s attention instantly thanks to the singles “Darts of Pleasure” and “Take Me Out”, the latter finding its way into many outlets of American media, including commercials. “I say, don’t you know? / You say, you don’t know / I say, take me out!” It wasn’t much, but it did the trick. The album received excellent reviews, and their songs were getting stuck in everyone’s head.
Then Franz Ferdinand did the unthinkable; they released their sophomore album the following calendar year. I know what you’re thinking. If you follow indie rock or jazz, releasing albums quickly is par for the course. But when it comes to major label acts that can potentially drive the stock price of a media conglomerate? It’s almost unheard of. 2005’s You Could Have It So Much Better did not set the world alight, but it gathered the band plenty of favorable reviews and scored another hit with the pogo-ready “Do You Want To”. And then they did what all other major label bands do: they took four years to plot their next move.
By the time Tonight: Franz Ferdinand appeared in 2009, much of the excitement surrounding the band was starting to fade. The album sold modestly, garnered mixed reviews, and allowed the band to shake off any fairweather fans. “Franz who? Oh yeah, those guys.” Since then, the band has kept their noses to the grindstone with 2013’s Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions, and 2018’s lofty-titled Always Ascending. After 19 years in the business and various lineup changes, Franz Ferdinand offer up their first compilation, Hits to the Head. If you possess all five of the band’s albums, will you need this one? Not if you don’t want the two new songs “Curious” and “Billy Goodbye”. Singer Alex Kapranos himself scoffs at the idea that greatest hits compilations aren’t cool. “I have friends who believe you’re somehow not a ‘real’ fan if you own a best of rather than a discography. I disagree.” You can look at these two songs as bait if you wish, but just know that you have Kapranos’ blessing to participate in the un-hip practice of purchasing his band’s best-of.
Hits to the Head was co-produced by Kapranos and fellow band member Julian Corrie, who didn’t join until 2017, and the heavily in-demand producer Stuart Price. The collection runs chronologically, placing the two new songs at the end. The band’s eponymous debut is represented the most with five tracks. You Can Have It So Much Better and Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions get four songs apiece, three come from Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, and Always Ascending comes in last with only two numbers. That’s 20 songs in all, coming in just under 70 minutes, highlighting Franz Ferdinand’s tendency for brevity, even when making a concept album (nothing is included from their collaboration with Sparks).
Since “Darts of Pleasure” was the single that started everything for Franz Ferdinand, it’s the song that begins the collection. As “Take Me Out” and “The Dark of the Matinée” give way to “Do You Want To” and “Walk Away”, you can practically hear the band talking themselves into not rocking the boat. If the debut did so well, why mess with the formula? Even Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, an album that tells the dangers of a wild night out (look at the cover), finds the band reluctant to change too much. Any knack for experimentation was saved for the Blood remix album. Besides, if “No You Girls” isn’t an attempt to rewrite “Take Me Out”, then I don’t know what is.
By this point in, Hits to the Head is starting to feel like a one-dimensional listening experience. It isn’t until “Stand on the Horizon” comes along that things begin to change. Here, arpeggiated guitars meet a melodic bass, like Johnny Marr and Peter Hook having a jam session, while Kapranos gives up his borderline shout for a softer dynamic. The characteristically tight drumbeat that propels many of Franz Ferdinand’s catchiest hits soon becomes the foundation of a club-inspired synthesizer sequence as Kapranos sings, “Oh the north sea sings / ‘Won’t you come to me, baby?'” “Always Ascending” presents its dance influence right at the start, and “Glimpse of Love” has enough disco synths to pass as an ABBA cover band.
“Curious” wants to have it both ways. Kapranos gives his voice a new slight Elvis quiver while keyboards bubble and boil around the edges, leaving the rest of the band to hold onto the tight rhythms and the herky-jerky guitars that made them famous. “Billy Goodbye” is even more disjointed, stapling a too-happy Springsteen chorus with murky verses that sound like an entirely different tune. It has all the markings of a throwaway b-side. That’s not due to the song’s poor quality or lack of memorability, but because it just doesn’t sound like Franz Ferdinand.
After being around for so many years, it would be frustrating to see no change in the band. Franz Ferdinand have evolved from their beginnings, but the changes have been slow and small. It took them nearly ten years to think outside the “Take Me Out” box, and even then, they seemed hesitant to let go. If the carefree and adventurous style of the legendary pop duo Sparks rubbed off on Franz Ferdinand during their collaboration, it did so incrementally. From 2003’s “Darts of Pleasure” to 2021’s “Billy Goodbye” and “Curious”, the stylistic arc of Franz Ferdinand isn’t as curved as it could be, as Hits to the Head accidentally makes clear.
If you’re the kind of listener who could listen to “Do You Want To” and “Take Me Out” all day every day, then you’re probably taking these criticisms for petty hair-splitting. But like many of their contemporaries, Franz Ferdinand’s potential is repeatedly hinted at rather than fully realized. If this career shortcut can give us any consolation, it’s that it’s better to show potential than to have none at all.