Friday, June 19, 2015

album review: 'ffs' by ffs (franz ferdinand & sparks)

I've talked a little about artistic team-ups before in this series, when two distinctive groups merge together to create a distinctly unique musical project. Sometimes the clash between the bands becomes the underlying arc of the album, like on the stunning performance art collaboration between Savages and Bo Ningen last year Words To The Blind. More commonly, one act tends to eclipse the others, especially when the styles of the two bands overlap. And with rare exception, that tends to be the older, more experienced act that takes dominance.

So on some level, when I heard about the planned collaboration between acclaimed, genre-bending cult band Sparks and indie rock group Franz Ferdinand, it almost seemed too obvious. Sparks had been a player in the first wave of glam, disco and synthpop, Franz Ferdinand had been one of the main frontrunners during the indie rock revival of the genres in the mid-2000s. Both featured frontmen who had a knack for overwritten, too clever by half lyricism that was always a little too hyperbolic and ridiculous for its own good and yet still manages to maintain its cool. Now Sparks has done everything as an act from changing genres about eight different times to releasing full on rock operas, and while the quality has been wildly uneven depending on the era, they've got nothing to prove. Hell, when Franz Ferdinand approached Sparks about the idea a decade, Sparks frontman Ron Mael sent Franz Ferdinand a demo titled 'Piss Off'.

But a decade later, with Franz Ferdinand maturing as a band and Sparks not having dropped any new material in about six years, they joined together into the supergroup FFS and dropped a self-titled record. And really, why not? For Sparks, it's a shot to introduce themselves to an audience who might never have heard of them, especially given the massive discography going back to the beginning of the 70s. And for Franz Ferdinand, it's a chance to work with long-time veterans and personal heroes and give them an excuse to get weird again. And while I absolutely adored Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action - which totally holds up as one of my favourite records of 2013 - Sparks might be able to add more focus to Franz Ferdinand's off-kilter experimentation. So, did FFS deliver?

Well, it delivered something, but for the past week of listening through this album, I've been struggling to figure out what that thing is - because the self-titled record of FFS is a weird animal, and one I think I appreciate more than I like. For one, it's more of a Sparks affair than Franz Ferdinand's, and while it gives the older cult band a thicker sound, it's doesn't quite lend them the loose, off-kilter grooves that would match the too-clever-by-half lyrics. In other words, it's an oddly stiff and pompous record that doesn't quite make the best of Franz Ferdinand's contributions instrumentally and leaves me feeling vaguely unsatisfied every time I listened through it. In other words, definitely a good record I can appreciate, but not quite a great one.

So the best way to approach this review is discussing the balance between Franz Ferdinand and Sparks - namely that there isn't any. This is an album that's most dominated by Ron Mael's crisp, slightly askew keyboard lines that teeter on the edge of instability, and that means the majority of Franz Ferdinand's instrumentation, from the weedy guitars to the oddly muffled drums, don't really have the same presence. Now for the most part this isn't bad - both groups are skilled melodic composers, and the wide breadth of odd synth tones they use prove that each song stays starkly memorable - but I'm left wishing for most of this album that there could be more of a punchy melodic groove to supplement the keyboards instead of just fill in background texture or at least to add a little more rollicking flow. It doesn't help matters that so much of the synth tones that are chosen fall into this chinzy, weedy territory that when paired with painfully underweight drums and both frontmen singing in falsetto just feel painfully thin - plenty of flavour but no body. Now that's not saying there isn't a groove here - a fair few songs get some real bass presence and some fuzzier low-end synth, and whenever we get orchestral stings and or a sharper guitar presence, they often turn out to be some of the best moments on this record - but it's nowhere near potent enough to match the blatant artificiality of the spacier keyboards or the odd oily lo-fi filter that feels slathered over the vocals. And on that note, the choice to prioritize Ron Mael's thinner range in the mix strikes me as the wrong one, especially on an album that needs more heft to it. 

Now that's not saying there aren't solid moments on this record - thickening the galloping groove against the chintzy keyboards on 'Dictator's Son' is a solid fit for a tyrannical vibe with delusions of pomp and grandeur, as was the swaggering bounce of the groove on 'Man Without A Tan', with the backing male chorus easily making it one of the stickiest hooks on the album, with the strings adding the perfect bombastic excess. And I loved how the cheery parade-like melody and drums of 'The Power Couple' was balanced against an ominous counter-melody in the guitars and how the borderline vintage pop pianos on 'Piss Off' broke into a ridiculously fun slice of glam rock. The two moments that surprised me the most in a good way, though, was the acoustic ballad of 'Little Guy From The Suburbs', which with the delicately soft vocals and horns could have been a military tribute until you dig into the lyrics or the ridiculously self-aware 'Collaborations Don't Work', that includes spacey smooth jazz, piano-driven musical theater, an acoustic interlude, and prog-rock operatic bombast as Ron Mael and Alex Kapranos take potshots at each other in a seven minute monster that's an absolute joy to hear. On the other hand, the runny mess that is 'Things I Won't Get', the buzzy shrillness of 'Police Encounters' feels like a sloppier 'Close Encounters' from Franz Ferdinand's last album, and 'So Desu Ne' tries to evoke an technicolor Asian vibe with the shrill synth, but the farty low-end synth and choppy percussion way too high in the mix makes it far more grating than most j-pop will ever be.

But okay, on some level you always expect this sort of instrumental collaboration to stumble, what about the lyrics, which have been consistent high points of both Franz Ferdinand and Sparks albums? Well, they're definitely solid, in the detail-rich, excellently framed, incredibly imaginative, and frequently insane way they have to be, mostly focusing on narrators that are delusional entitled twits who are only just realizing their lives are careening out of control. This is an album rife with unearned pomp, ridiculous demands, and a creeping sense that everyone's in way over their heads - in other words, the exact same stuff that characterized Franz Ferdinand's last record Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action. Now here's the tricky thing: for this stuff to be gripping beyond sheer cleverness for its own sake, it needs to maintain the balance between self-aware absurdity and enough grandiosity and pathos to suck the audience in regardless. Think about 'Treason! Animals' from that last Franz Ferdinand album - it was the tale of a madman spiraling into a web of mirrors, but the groove was so good you kind of wanted to go along for the ride. On this album it can be a little harder to stick with that protagonist, like on 'Johnny Delusional' or 'Call Girl' - both are presented from the perspective of indulgent dudes who feel entitled to the girl's attention and get progressively creepier - which yeah, I appreciate the self-awareness and social commentary, but it doesn't really suck me in. And then there's cases like 'Police Encounters' and 'So Desu Ne', where I have such a thin handle on the stakes of the songs they just kind of lose me, or the sappy faux sincerity of 'Things I Won't Get' that's just weak. 

Nah, where this album gets interesting is when the insight aims a little deeper. I mentioned the lyrics on 'Little Guy From The Suburbs' being subversive, and that's because I'm fairly certain that song is written from the perspective of a Front de Liberation du Quebec terrorist fighting for separating that province from the rest of Canada - and yet the song plays him like a hapless dupe who ends up getting "martyred" for his cause. 'Man Without A Tan' plays a little simpler in its takedown of tanned musclehead culture in comparison with the tan-less smooth talker, but I kind of liked how utterly homoerotic the song came across. The best moments, though, came on 'Collaborations Don't Work', where Franz Ferdinand and Sparks hurl insults at each other for seven minutes that connect way too well, but it's also clear they're each other's own warped mirror image. It lightens the sting of the record - it might spend the entire length taking the piss out of guys everywhere, but they don't hesitate from including themselves in the mix.

So where do I fall on FFS? Honestly, I could go either way on this project. I'd like to see the supergroup continue to work together as it is an inspired pairing, but I suspect the balance of style wouldn't pick up the more youthful elements of Franz Ferdinand's style that makes them one of the most interesting indie rock groups still working. If the production balance was a little more guitar-heavy or the grooves were thicker, I'd probably like this album a lot more. But as it is, it's a 7/10 from me and definitely a recommendation if you're a fan of Sparks, but a qualified one if you're a fan of Franz Ferdinand, as their best elements really don't come into play. Otherwise, it's weird and smart enough that it deserves your time, but don't blame me if you end up wanting both these groups to just piss off.

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