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Franz Ferdinand

Scot free at last; With their third and best album, Franz Ferdinand fulfill the promise of Take Me Out

Franz It took three years of deliberation and soul-searching for Franz Ferdinand, Scotland’s most intellectual band, to figure out how to follow up their first two albums. As it turns out, the progression they needed was embedded in their very first single.

“Take Me Out,” which introduced the Glasgow quartet to the world in 2004, starts with a salvo of jittery guitars and insistent drums, and then less than a minute later it slows right down to the loping groove that has launched a thousand indie dance nights. The self-titled album that followed, as well as 2005’s You Could Have It So Much Better took their cues from the song’s first section: they were spilling over with agitated, angular guitar pop.

Only with their new album, Tonight, do they finally explore the possibilities they laid down with that famous Part 2 groove. “That’s probably pretty accurate,” acknowledges frontman Alex Kapranos, when this theory is put to him. But if the process behind crafting their new sound were that easy, they wouldn’t be Franz Ferdinand.

Scarfing down a sandwich in a downtown Toronto hotel suite with drummer Paul Thomson this past December, Kapranos cast his band’s torturous evolution as an ambition to emulate the careers of heroes such as David Bowie and protean LA duo Sparks.

“When we were making our first record and getting the band together,” he says, “part of that was creating an identity – the sound that you could instantly identify as being Franz Ferdinand. The second album was a continuation of that identity. This time we said, ‘Time for something new.’ You can still tell it’s the same four people making the music, but the feel to me, is very different.”

The two bandmates seem somewhat bleary from having spent the night before in Montreal drinking whiskey and playing ping-pong with The Arcade Fire (the 6’5” Win Butler, Thomson says with reverence, is a “serious” opponent). But while the heavily tattooed, impressively-quiffed drummer looks as though he’s ready to crawl into a corner and sleep, the lanky Kapranos seems wired to be discussing the ideas behind his band’s new album.

In conversation, he qualifies himself continuously, ducking and swerving as if wary of letting Franz Ferdinand be pinned to an undesirable epithet. He’s keen to admit the presence of Ethiopian influences on a couple of songs, but then backtracks: “I wouldn’t say this album has an African feel to it, because we’re not Africans.” He agrees with Thomson that for the band, “funk is no longer a dirty word,” but adds, “We weren’t trying to make a funk record, and I wouldn’t really describe it as funk.”

Categories, he implies, are for the small-minded: “In the UK, there is a bit of snobbery between the pop world and the indie/alternative world. If you’re in one camp, you disrespect the other, and I want absolutely no part of that whatsoever.”

This attitude led the band to try working on new material with “adventurous” London pop production team Xenomania, but they scrapped the sessions and abandoned work with James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco) and Erol Alkan (Mystery Jets), finally deciding that the best way to experiment with their sound was to return home and take over an old Glasgow building that had previously been a town hall and a drug rehab clinic.

Aided by producer/remixer Dan Carey, Kapranos, Thomson, guitarist/keyboardist Nick McCarthy, and bassist Bob Hardy challenged themselves with unorthodox recording techniques: swinging a microphone back and forth from the hall’s high ceiling to create the Doppler Effect, recording vocals at 3 a.m. on the stage in pitch darkness, and huddling in a cellar under the stage to record together around one microphone.

They also added percussion to fill out their grooves (including the rattling of human bones on one song) and keyboards to broaden their palette. The irresistible stomper “Lucid Dreams” even concludes with a four-minute synth bass-led instrumental wig-out that was apparently edited down from a 45-minute improvisation.

They aimed to put themselves in a trance — “I don’t mean a narcotic trance,” Kapranos hastens to add – attempting to find the point at which “something happens: you feel that you’re not considering what you’re playing at all, like you’re hypnotized.”

On stage in Toronto in a heaving Lee’s Palace on the night of the interview, the band spends most of their set working at letting go; their performance is energetic but feels somewhat constrained until, with a set-ending rendition of 2005’s “Outsiders,” they indulge in an expansive jam and the full band ends up bashing away at Thomson’s drum kit. It’s a choreographed moment, no doubt, but there is a sense of abandon to their playing. The encore that follows is rapturous.

The way the new songs mesh with the old suggests that the band’s new “sonic identity” isn’t quite as different as Franz Ferdinand would like you to believe. There’s still an audible thread of control running through the album, and Kapranos’s closely-observed songs about dysfunctional relationships are really songs about closely observing dysfunctional relationships: “I never wonder how the girl feels,” he sings on “Katherine Kiss Me.” And yet, the song is the sweetest and sparsest they’ve ever recorded, and it closes the album on an agreeably wistful note.

In the end, Tonight is the band’s best album: they’ve allowed themselves a degree of release from their characteristic tension and, paradoxically, managed to create structures within which they can cut loose.

As Kapranos puts it: “That’s what we were trying to aim for with this record: losing all self-awareness, self-consciousness, because that’s when you perform at your best.”

— From The National Post, Jan. 2009


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