I hope I can be forgiven for thinking that Franz Ferdinand was a flash in the pan.
They first burst onto the scene in 2004 with a sound that was like four glitter cannons going off at once. I described them then as Morrissey’s dance band – leader Alex Kapranos has a particularly Mozz-like voice, disaffected and droll, and Franz themselves were equal parts punk and disco, even then. It was a novel sound that I dismissed as a bit of a novelty.
But fourteen years later, here we are. Franz Ferdinand is one of the hardiest survivors of the 2000s, and they’ve proven remarkably adaptable. Over time they’ve added more and more dance elements to their style, and while they are still determinedly quirky, they’ve carved out their own niche. I think a lot of what they’ve been trying to do crystallized when they collaborated with Sparks in 2015, creating a wild record called FFS that played to both bands’ strengths. Franz is far more like Sparks than any of their peers from 2004, and hopefully will be similarly long-lived.
Their fifth album, Always Ascending, continues their streak. With the addition of programmer/producer Julian Corrie to the ranks, the band’s sound has become even more keyboard-driven, and they’ve taken on some Duran Duran overtones here and there. But they still sound like Franz Ferdinand. Kapranos still sounds like he’s commenting on the music while singing it, and the band sounds even more like a danceable Smiths in places here.
And as always, the most damning thing you can say about a Franz record is that it is too short. The songs on Always Ascending are tight and full of hooks. I’m particularly fond of “Finally,” Kapranos floating above a constantly morphing groove, celebrating having found his people. “Lazy Boy” dares you not to take it seriously – it is perhaps the one here most influenced by their time with Sparks.
“Lois Lane” seems to be an earnest tribute to Superman’s girlfriend, lauding her for her journalism career. “Huck and Jim” finds Kapranos going darker, trying his hand at half-speaking, half-rapping, and dropping this chorus: “We’re going to America, gonna tell ‘em ‘bout the NHS, and when we get there we will all hang out, sipping 40s with Huck and Jim.” The album closes with ballad “Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow,” and I always like it when Kapranos takes on these more melodic pieces – he stretches his tenor and delivers with sincerity.
Always Ascending is yet another swell little Franz Ferdinand album. I feel pretty silly for dismissing them at first. They clearly have a strong and solid idea of who they are, and now that I have a bit of a better idea of it too, I’m looking forward to hearing more as they evolve.
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About ten years ago, a friend of mine suggested I listen to The ’59 Sound, the second album by New Jersey band The Gaslight Anthem. I enjoyed it like crazy – it was like the punk version of The E Street Shuffle, raucous and hopeful and fun. I wish I’d known then that the band and its leader, Brian Fallon, didn’t have any other tricks up their sleeve, and would be riding that sound out forever.
Three Gaslight albums and two solo records later, here is Fallon with Sleepwalkers, another dozen songs he dug out of Bruce Springsteen’s dumpster. (I wish that were my joke.) I don’t hate this record, but I’m not finding a whole lot to hang my ear on either. It’s breezy and amiable, hoping to make friends wherever it goes, but it kind of sits there for me, never accomplishing too much.
I like the opening song, “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven,” well enough – it has a sharp little guitar part, and the organs are pleasant. But then “Forget Me Not” barges in, sounding exactly like Born in the USA-era Bruce, and the momentum collapses. “Come Wander With Me” could be Bryan Adams, so complete is its ‘80s anthemic sound. I like the mandolin on “Proof of Life,” even if the song leaves me cold. “Little Nightmares” works in an Elvis Costello-style guitar-and-organ riff and some swell double-time drums. That one’s probably my favorite.
Throughout this record, Fallon sings his little heart out, and his working man’s poetry is the same as always. I’m sure his heart is in the right place, and he seems invested in the characters he creates and the stories he relates. Of course, those characters and stories are right out of Springsteen, and I wish someone with Fallon’s passion and intensity had it in him to break out of his influences and give us something original.
Sleepwalkers isn’t that. It’s a very well-produced pastiche, a wasted harnessing of forces to create a mediocre copy of better work. Fallon’s singing voice is exactly what it should be, but his songwriting voice is still stuck in the same rut. I’m sure it’s working for him, sales-wise, but he’s leaving a trail of empty art behind him, and that’s a shame.
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Field Music never has that problem. They are unfailingly original, fascinating and captivating. There’s just one problem I have with them: I never remember their songs. Like, ever.
I’ve bought every Field Music album – the new one, Open Here, is their eighth, not counting their b-sides collection – and I’ve loved every one of them. Field Music is, at its core, brothers Peter and David Brewis, and they’re steeped in Supertramp-style progressive pop and English folk music. Their songs are tricky and twisty, but unfailingly melodic and catchy. The brothers Brewis clearly labor over these records, and Open Here is no exception.
I just have some kind of resistance of memory to their work. I’m listening to Open Here for the fourth time right now, and it’s like I’m discovering it again for the first time. I love it – six-minute opener “Time in Joy” is pretty much the perfect Field Music song, with a Steely Dan groove, a pure prog riff that holds the whole thing together, and an absolutely delightful full-harmony chorus. There’s even a flute. It literally could not be better. And next time I hear it, it will be like stumbling across how wonderful it is all over again.
The rest of Open Here is similarly awesome, its 39 minutes flying by in a rush. “Count It Up” sounds like Gary Numan joining 10cc and then ranting about Brexit – the brothers hail from Sunderland, England, the first town in the UK to vote for leaving the European Union, and much of Open Here takes on a renewed political focus. “Goodbye to the Country” is the angriest this band gets, and “Checking on a Message” ably captures the pins-and-needles feeling of waiting up for election results, certain that things are about to go very badly.
I’m also a big fan of “No King No Princess,” a letter to the young Brewis children about rejecting stereotypical gender roles. The horns here are classic Field Music – they almost don’t fit in with the early-XTC-style groove the band lays down. Closer “Find a Way to Keep Me” is a plaintive plea, leaving things on an uncertain note. I love the way it builds and builds, strings and woodwinds winding around it, until it delivers a final pirouette.
Open Here is a great record, just like the last seven Field Music records, and I genuinely would love to remember that it is. My inability to recall how excellent it is has nothing to do with the band or the songs. The brothers Brewis did everything right, as always. I think the key might be to listen over and over, almost obsessively, until this complex yet fully alive music settles into my brain. Wish me luck.
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For all the new music brought to you by the letter F, the thing I’ve been listening to most lately dates back 45 years.
Frank Zappa was a musician like no other, and to be in his band, you had to follow two rules: no drugs allowed, and you had to be able to keep up. He was a musical machine, creating new songs and arrangements at a stunning pace, and he only employed the best of the best to realize his visions. And one of his very best bands played with him from 1973 to 1975, creating some of his best-loved records.
One of those records is called Roxy and Elsewhere, and it features performances captured at the Roxy in Los Angeles over a weekend in December, 1973. It also features a raft of overdubs and studio tweaking, as was Zappa’s wont, and it blurs the line between a live album and a studio creation. The Zappa family has, of course, been milking that weekend of performances, issuing Roxy By Proxy (a collection of other performances not on Roxy and Elsewhere) in 2014, and Roxy the Movie and its soundtrack a year later.
And now they’ve given us the motherlode – a seven-CD box set called The Roxy Performances that includes every note played during that weekend. It’s eight hours long, and contains four full shows, a recorded rehearsal, a studio session and a filmed sound check. (Never let it be said that Zappa didn’t work his musicians.) This might feel like overkill to anyone not steeped in Zappa, but trust me when I tell you it’s not nearly enough kill. I could listen to this incredible band play this incredible material for twice this long without getting bored.
The four shows are amazing, of course. It’s great to finally hear how familiar songs like “Village of the Sun” and “Cheepnis” fit in with the overall arc of what Zappa was trying to do, and to hear them stripped of studio sweetening only emphasizes how fantastic this band is. It would be pointless to call out individual players, since they’re all so good, but I’m always amazed by percussionist Ruth Underwood. She’s flawless, and Zappa gives her some impossibly difficult material to play. Just listen to her showcase on “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing,” presented here three times. (The 13-minute take from the second show is my favorite.)
The rehearsal is fun – it’s not some hissy-tape document, it’s a crystal clear opportunity to hear the band working out parts of this tricky material. I’m not sure what its replay value is, but I’m glad to have it. The rehearsal tapes also include a new version of “The Idiot Bastard Son” with lyrics about Tricky Dick, called “That Arrogant Dick Nixon.” It’s a technique Zappa would use to full effect on his 1988 tour, which took aim at Jimmy Swaggart and his fellow televangelists.
The studio session is interesting in the same way, as a historical document. Zappa leads the band through some of the best-known material of this era, including the full “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” suite, and most of this is Zappa giving notes to his players and fine-tuning these pieces. The final disc contains the sound check/film shoot, recorded a day before the first show in front of a select audience. The band vamps on “Pygmy Twylyte” for 35 minutes, gives us a typically great “Echidna’s Arf (Of You),” and closes with quick run-throughs of some extremely difficult pieces (“T’Mershi Duween,” “Dog Breath” and “Uncle Meat”). There isn’t much here that isn’t represented elsewhere, but it’s great to have even more stunning performances of these songs.
There’s so much here, it’s almost impossible to absorb it all. The Roxy Performances is one of the most welcome pieces of Zappa history, finally available in a beautiful box for a decent price. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you love hearing real musicians playing truly astounding music live, you, like me, won’t be able to get enough of this.
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That’s it for this week. Next week, Justin Timberlake meets Bill Mallonee. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.