Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Ulysses - Franz Ferdinand

You can live or die by a maxim. When Franz Ferdinand burst onto the alternative music scene in 2003/04 declaring they wanted to make “music to make girls dance to” it seemed entirely apposite – cool, wry, irreverent, and arch. They appeared to have arrived perfectly formed, a continuation of Britain’s rich art school heritage, self-aware, culturally and historically conscious and steeped in the coolest of influences. Careers can be built on such foundations, yet Franz Ferdinand’s desire for critical approval and to be elevated to the canonical heights of their musical heroes’ means that by album number three they have to deliver something more than angular post-punk and a few pithy comments strung across a verse/chorus structure. This is particularly the case for Franz Ferdinand after a disappointingly inconsistent second album You Could Have It So Much Better which, though smattered with excellent singles and songs that hinted at a darker and more melancholic edge (such as “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” and “Walk Away”), was mired with songs that came across as unplanned and underdeveloped. There has also been a backlash against the indie explosion of 03/04, with many acts that made their name at the time being dropped by their label or experiencing poor sales return (see Razorlight). Franz Ferdinand are far too popular for this to happen, and will shift many units purely through curiosity, but after three and a half years away from the fray they still need to be seen as relevant.
Their third album Tonight has had a troubled gestation period that saw Franz Ferdinand holed up in Govan Town Hall, an ostentatious and grand former civic building, with three different sets of producers (Dan Carey finished the album after abortive sessions with Erol Alkan and Xenomania, the production team behind Girls Aloud). New single “Ulysses” starts with a languid drum and bass intro (further showcasing the fact that bassist Bob Hardy has improved beyond all recognition since their debut) belying their white funk influences, while Alex Kapranos urges us to “get high”.
The most noticeable aspect of the new material is the use of synthesisers. This isn’t exactly new to Franz Ferdinand; “Auf Achse” from their debut was heavily influenced by 80s synth-pop (Ultravox, OMD etc) while their second album also utilised them. The difference here is that they have been thrust centre stage, carrying the melody rather than supplementing it. And while the broadening of the sonic palette is welcome Tonight is not the Low-esque journey into synthesised soundscapes that was originally purported. A desire for continuity with their back catalogue so as not to alienate their fanbase and a crucial lack of experimentation hinder the album. While they may appreciate that culturally the guitar is being replaced in popular conscience this year by the synth, their efforts come across as ornamentation rather than melodic innovation.
“Ulysses” itself is a perfectly serviceable song, but it’s not as immediate as anything from their first or even second albums. By this time in their career they should be making bold artistic statements, not just music that will sound good in a club. The only song on the album that approaches their previous heights is “Lucid Dreams”, a seven minute long song that begins with a taut and funky riff before exploding into the chorus. It also possesses a synthesised coda where it seems all four members abandon their normal instruments as the song transforms into a Moroder style disco stomp. Unfortunately the rest of the album fails to meet the quality of this track.

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