Sunday, August 25, 2013

album review: 'right thoughts, right words, right action' by franz ferdinand

Now here’s something about the music industry that really gets on my nerves: when pop acts don't like to be called pop acts.

Oh sure, you get the acts that don’t care one way or another, but there are a number of acts – particularly in rock and R&B – who will always attempt to qualify their genre as anything besides pop music. And really, it’s not surprising why – many people tend to denigrate pop music simply because of their preconceptions regarding its genre, believing that it’s ephemeral, inconsequential, and stupid. Worse still, being branded a pop act is still used by some critics as a verbal shorthand to dismiss some acts out of hand without bothering to delve deeper into their ambitions or context.

And to me, this just seems goddamn wrong. Pop is a genre, not a qualifier, and it shouldn’t be used to denigrate an act one way or another, mostly because some of the best and most celebrated acts of all time have spent portions of their lifespans in the ‘pop’ consciousness. Just because said music might have a conventional structure or an accessible sound does not mean it can or should be castigated by critics who are constantly hunting for the newest eccentricity in the indie scene. In fact, I’d make the argument (again) that writing good pop music, the material that’s actually well-written and catchy and has staying power while remaining mainstream-accessible, is actually much more difficult than random independent experimentation, because you’re working within a framework that actively resists attempts to change or push boundaries. It’s also one reason I tend to like Lady Gaga’s writing methodology even if I don’t always like her music: she’s trying to make things weirder and more baroque, but she has the streak of populism to stay within the current pop consciousness.

So when I make the statement that Franz Ferdinand is an indie pop rock act, I don’t say it in order to blast the band. In fact, I’d make the argument that their pop-centric songwriting is one of the best features of their music and one of the factors that makes them the critically-acclaimed indie acts of the past decade, not to mention one of my favourites. This is a band that has a strong pop sensibility, particularly in the construction of their hooks, and they have the impeccable songwriting and energetic delivery that gives them a real presence in the pop landscape. Or, to put it as acclaimed critic Nathan Rabin described them:

Listeners might get older, but pop music always stays the same age. It’s never quite old enough to drink, legally that is. (But it still knows how to party!) The inclusion of Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”... consequently feels like the birthday girl’s super-cool brother, who wears skinny jeans, does lot of coke, and spends several hours each morning trying to make his hairstyle look casual, crashing the party along with a smattering of his equally hip friends. It’s a terrific slice of 1979 New York (by way of Scotland)...

Pretty much, and indeed, if I was looking for an attitude to best describe Franz Ferdinand – that of a pop band with decidedly mature sensibilities and smarter songwriting – it would be that. So when the band exploded in 2004 (otherwise known as the first attempt for indie rock to break into the mainstream), it wasn’t really surprising that they were lumped with The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Killers, Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, and others. Unlike most of the rest of these bands, Franz Ferdinand had a follow-up album waiting, and the second punch in 2005 with You Could Have It So Much Better was rougher, faster, and arguably even better. Like The Strokes on their first two albums, Franz Ferdinand had a unique sound (indie rock fused with a retro funk/disco blend that did ‘dance music with guitars’ far better than E.M.F. could have ever hoped for), hooks that were catchy as hell, and a lead vocalist with a lot of personality.

Unlike The Strokes, however, Franz Ferdinand were decent lyricists, and that led to their longevity persisting onto their third album Tonight: Franz Ferdinand in 2009, which many have deemed their weakest, yet still very strong in its own right. The songwriting was as strong as always, but to me the weaknesses were in the fact that the great hooks just weren’t there in the same way like they were back in 2004 or 2005. Sure, there was ‘Ulysses’ and ‘No You Girls’, but it started to feel like some of that spark was starting to fizzle. Worse still was the fact I got the feeling the band knew that spark was fading too, which led to their experimentation with electronic elements with mixed results.

So with all of that in mind, the band took another four years off and finally have come back with a new album this year. Has the time off been enough for the band to reclaim their spark?

Well, in a way, in that this album sounds and feels exactly like a good Franz Ferdinand album. In fact, I'd make the argument that Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action does enough right to be considered better than the previous album, although not quite as good as the band's two-pronged debut. So the album is great and will likely land on my year-end list of the best albums of the year - the question then becomes what the elements that are preventing it from rising to the top, which is significantly trickier to pinpoint and might require a bit of a history lesson regarding pop trends.

See, as I've been repeatedly saying throughout this year, pop trends have been looking backwards towards the 70s and the 90s - which, believe it or not, is not all that uncommon, particularly on the pop charts. Nostalgia tends to have about a twenty year breadth, after all, and the 80s nostalgia of the early 2000s was evidence enough of that. So it's probably not surprising to many of you that the 90s were quite nostalgic for the 70s - after all, this is when the second major punk wave exploded into the mainstream, organic roots-based rock revived in the adult alternative scene, and the shallowness of the 80s was swept away into attempts at depth in the 90s (well, at least until said depth was sold out in the late 90s, but that happened in the 70s pop scene too). 

What you might not know, however, is that a great deal of 70s music, particularly 70s punk, owes a lot not to the rock gods of the 60s, but the original rock 'n roll pioneers of the 50s, who charted with simple riff-based rock that built off of catchy hooks and simple themes. When the punks of the 70s adapted said music, the biggest changes were not in instrumental structure, but in tone, particularly with the growth of the more sophisticated, significantly darker elements of post-punk in the end of 70s. And combined with the rise and fall of disco at the end of that decade as well (which manifested in a very different way in northern England, and didn't collapse with the same explosion as it did in the US), the last few years of the 70s were characterized by extreme turbulence in the music scene until the second British Invasion began with new wave.

So what on earth does any of this have to do with Franz Ferdinand? Well, this, very simply: if we are looking to find a band that somehow absorbed all of the influences, sounds, and tone of the late 70s and then fused them into an album, I'd point at Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action by Franz Ferdinand. It is an album that feels distinctly of a different time, and yet could never have existed in that time due to the schisms between the various genres - which makes the pop fusion that exists on this album singularly unique.

And what's best about it is that all of the best trends of these fused genres rose to the top on this album. The simplistic and irresistible hooks that are way too catchy for their own damn good, the harder, riff-driven guitar, the bass track that sounds appropriated from the funk/disco studio next door, the twisted keyboard effects and production that were appropriated straight from the post-punk scene (I could have sworn I heard a theremin on 'Brief Encounters'), and Alex Kapranos' delivery which toes the line between being a punk shout, a funk-soul inspired yelp, or a full-fledged theatrical explosion in the vein of Queen (I'm convinced that if you fused Alex Kapranos and Nate Ruess of fun. together, you'd get a new Freddie Mercury). Hell, there are even fragments of psychedelia that feel reminiscent of the collapse of prog-rock (to say nothing of the undercurrent of paranoia that seems to creep through some tracks that feels very much analogous to The Wall-era Pink Floyd). And while all previous Franz Ferdinand albums have had these elements in some way, shape, or form, only this album feels like it is grandiose enough to pull it all off.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that at points, it's a bit messy and it doesn't always click together quite as well as it should. 'Bullet' is a loud pop-punk number that has a distinctive 50s vibe, but it doesn't have the tightness or control to come together as well as it could (plus Alex Kapranos' upper-range has always been shaky). And 'The Universe Expanded' takes a rather bleak post-punk opening complete with hazy guitars and some surprisingly disturbing lyrics and then tries to marry it to an upbeat chorus that doesn't quite gel. 

So what about those lyrics? Well, if there was a band that I think analyzing the lyrics is stepping in the wrong direction, Franz Ferdinand would be at the top of that list, mostly because it's tricky to tell which level of wry, bitter sarcasm the band is operating on, particularly on tracks like 'Treason! Animals' or 'Goodbye Lovers And Friends'. Part of the problem is that with a more theatrical style, it's tougher to convey subtleties like irony without telegraphing the punchline, but for the most part, Franz Ferdinand are witty enough songwriters that trust that their audience will get the point. But for the most part, it's easy enough to take Franz Ferdinand at face value, because their talent for writing sex-stained, coked-out pop anthems about being young, brash, and having a good time is fortunately still here, even if the technical songwriting isn't quite as razor-sharp as it was on their opening two albums.  Alex Kapranos has come out describing one of the underlying themes as 'the cynic's search for optimism and the sceptic's search for a manual', which definitely comes across in the straightforward earnestness tempered by sarcasm that seems to fill the first half of the album, and be completely subsumed by knowing, willful delusion on the second half.

And what I will note is an undercurrent of paranoia that seems to bubble beneath the surface for most of the album, a stark realization that the party has to end or that things might very quickly escalate into something darker or more unsettling, the underbelly to the constant hunt for something to believe in. 'Evil Eye', 'Treason! Animals', 'The Universe Expanded', 'Brief Encounters', even 'Fresh Strawberries' seem very much aware that their wild youthful indiscretions might have darker consequences or might come to a grim end, and it adds a real hidden edge to their material that could undercut one's enjoyment (a theme echoed by the eerie post-punk elements). But then the album ends with 'Goodbye Lovers and Friends', which goes out with pomp and rock star swagger that wouldn't be out of place on a Queen track, complete with the lyrical lie 'I don't play pop music, no / I hate pop music'. But the hilarious thing about the song is that the obvious lies are played with such winking insincerity that they undercut the faux rock star pretentiousness and presents a bizarrely optimistic scenario where we're expected to laugh at all of that grimy darkness - and to be honest, I'm not sure Franz Ferdinand properly earns that sort of ending.

So I guess that's where I'll probably come down on Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action - a very, very strong album with a lot of character and personality, but a few missteps that don't quite manage to make the album a true classic. If you're a fan of Franz Ferdinand you'll love this album, particularly if you have any affection at all for all of the music of the late 70s. Yeah, it's a little ridiculous and kind of campy that way late 70s music that went over the top tended to be, but it's well-balanced by sharp songwriting and never crosses the line into outright silliness. And as a modern indie pop rock album, you'd be hard-pressed to find one better.

Yeah, I said pop. I don't mean it as an insult, and from what I've read in interviews, Alex Kapranos doesn't think it is either, so sod off and let them play.

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