Wednesday, February 14, 2018

album review: 'always ascending' by franz ferdinand

So okay, maybe it wasn't a good idea for The Wombats to release their newest groove-heavy, sleek indie rock record the very same day as Franz Ferdinand doing a very similar sound... 

Or at least that's what I was expecting. The truth is that while I was looking forward to this record even more than The Wombats, I also knew my expectations would have to be even further qualified - it's been five years since the last solo Franz Ferdinand project, and while their collaboration with Sparks in 2015 was certainly entertaining, it wasn't quite as tight or fun as Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action. And more even than that, Franz Ferdinand were fighting off the loss of their lead guitarist Nick McCarthy who was choosing to spend more time with his family, and a lot of bands really can't come back from that. Granted, calling back old 90s member Dino Bardot for guitar and recruiting remix artist Julian Corrie could have potential, and recruiting electronic musician Phillipe Zdar could have some potential, but all of it was reflecting a band focusing less on straightforward indie rock and more electronic tones. And while my concerns were not huge - they had Todd Terje work on their last record, it's clear they've got solid taste in electronic music - I will say I was a little skeptical, as my favourite Franz Ferdinand record remains You Could Have It So Much Better, and further pivots from rock could dampen some of that electric energy. Not quite the same as what happened to The Wombats, but similar in principle.

But again, these guys are veterans with a canny eye towards great songwriting, and this was one of my most hotly anticipated records of 2018 - did they stick the landing with Always Ascending?

Well, yes and no. Make no mistake, I've given this Franz Ferdinand record a lot of listens trying to untangle where the hell I ultimately stand on it, especially as it wasn't clicking with me nearly as strongly as their first two records or Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action. And ultimately where I come on it is that while this does quietly turn out to be a pretty great little record, it is ultimately transitional, and you get the impression that not only did Sparks rub off on Franz Ferdinand a fair bit, but they're also resetting the board, reconfiguring where they might want to take their sound going forward.

And I'll freely admit right out of the gate it took me a fair bit to really gravitate to it, because while there are songs that are more driven by the guitar melody like 'Lazy Boy' and 'Feel The Love Go' that are easy standouts for me, the arrangements here are more diverse in terms of the driving groove. Sometimes you get the more defined bass groove of 'Finally', or the sharper yet more brittle low-end of 'Lois Lane' that morphs into an entirely different song by the outro, or the pretty stunning bassy disco gloss of 'Glimpse Of Love', but then on the flip side you might get songs that take more of an oily, quasi-psychedelic grinding synth to flesh out the melody like on 'Paper Cages', even if when it does get meatier there is some real swagger to the song. And like with The Wombats, if you're looking for one uniformly great reason to pick up this album, it'd be the grooves both on the bass and the amazingly sharp percussion work - but frankly, they're on a different level of complexity here, especially with any guitar interplay with the synths playing to a much higher level of gloss and burnished sheen, and that's before you even get Terry Edwards blasting away on saxophone on 'Feel The Love Go'. What surprised me were the two ballads on this record, first with 'The Academy Award' nailing the balance between the acoustics and the misty, slightly elegant but slightly sleazy synthwork, and then especially with 'Slow Don't Kill Me Slow', between the vocal overdubs, jangling guitar echoing into the mix, and funereal presence... but let's get real, the reason why so much of this works is Alex Kapranos himself. Now I've always loved this guy on the microphone, but where on previous records his theatricality always felt a tad hurried and manic, here with the slightly slower tempos and greater usage of his lower register his richness in his voice comes through with a palpable presence that lends many of these tracks a gravitas you wouldn't expect... which is why I got pretty annoyed when I heard the vocal production top out on the title track and 'Lois Lane', hitting a flat, staticky edge that didn't flatter the mix or the vocal arrangement.

Now I have a few other production nitpicks too - I'd prefer a little more tempo overall, and there's a part of me that does prefer the guitars drive more of the melody, especially when they aren't compressed into mush on the hooks of songs like 'Huck And Jim', a song that might just have one whiplash transition too many, which is where the Sparks-esque progressive side is definitely leaking through. But I think the larger conversation needs to come back to the songwriting and as I said the last time I covered Franz Ferdinand about four and a half years ago, a lot of their work tends to resist analysis. They're certainly clever in their framing, and the more Kapranos can own his theatricality the more subtlety he can bring to bear, but they don't seem to go that deep. And honestly, that's okay and it plays to the band's hidden strengths when the theatrical melodrama can turn up all the little ironies around them, less embodying the paranoia that lurked beneath their last album or the pure antipathy coaxed through on FFS, but here a strange sort of defiant optimism that a perpetually cynical band is going to undercut at every turn in favour of staying lodged in middle-gear. Hell, the title track referencing the Shepard tone - a superposition of sine waves separated by octaves - is a solid metaphor on the veneer of ascending but never quite really getting there, and the second verse of 'Paper Cage' calls out the punk's futile rebellion there too - but also canny enough to show that the cage is indeed made of paper and could be shattered if the person made the choice to do so. That becomes the more prominent theme beneath tracks like 'Lois Lane' and 'Lazy Boy', where people who choose to be altruistic and make their own happiness do actually find it, while the cynics and the lazy are unwilling or actively hostile to take that next step and they stagnate. But Franz Ferdinand are smart enough to show the lingering appeal of that stagnation - look at 'Huck And Jim', on the precipice of making a choice all throughout those verses, and even despite the Scottish band going to the U.S. and telling them about systems in the U.K., they still drink with quintessential American icons and wallow a little themselves.

And of course, people might project the image of doing something in their lives... but it's all a veneer all the same. 'The Academy Award' and 'Glimpse Of Love' are great examples of this, highlighting the photos and videos put out of the 'movies of our own lives', but then it becomes a recursive loop as much as we watch and rewatch them in the absence of actually living, especially when it is all just a veneer... but if the veneer brings inspiration to onlookers, is that enough? Or when you get to the closing track 'Slow Don't Kill Me Slow', you get the reference to a time lapse in the face of incoming death, life flashing before one's eyes and what not - does one really need that experience elongated when it's your action that stripped that love away? Pure melodrama, absolutely, but the framing is just theatrical enough to nail it, which is also why the desperate seeking to love friends or enemies on 'Feel The Love Go' clicks as well - sure it has the profoundly cynical line of 'for the things you do are not who you are'... which is the thing the cynic must say when he's not doing anything, so the response to spread love on the hook resonates, despite feeling a tad repetitive and lacking in detail. Granted, the instrumentation is lush enough that I don't mind, but that's an unfortunate trait across a lot of this record, especially 'Finally' - sharp writing, but I wish there was a little more meat in the text.

So as a whole... look, for a lot of listens through this record, I was on the cusp whether or not I could truly call it great, especially in comparison to Franz Ferdinand's incredibly solid discography. And with that in mind, I'm confident saying this is not really among their best - but it's also not their worst and the more listens I give it the more I'm convinced of its value. I might prefer more guitars and the writing can feel a bit underweight in spots, but great grooves, excellent vocal arrangements, and writing that surprised me the more I dug into it means I'm giving this an 8/10. Definitely check it out, for Franz Ferdinand pushing well over a decade in this business, I'm thrilled that for this transition, they stuck the landing.

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