Thursday, 5 February 2009

Franz Ferdinand - Tonight

Franz Ferdinand - Tonight (***) (Domino)
extended ramble based on this review for the skinny which is much more concise and probably a better use of your time

There was a debate on the Stylus forum recently about who might be 'the Artist of the Decade' - with most of the discussion revolving around Kanye West and Eminem, Radiohead and the White Stripes. I suggested that a candidate for a UK-specific Artist of the Decade would be Girls Aloud - they've had INCREDIBLE chart success (20 successive Top 10 hits (though check this out), only five of which weren't Top 5), they're also the go-to pop act for male critics to reference as proof of their non-rockism, and as proof of their critical bravery (only by choosing a group of really sexy girls can they prove they're not in fact swayed by sex appeal in any way more than is appropriate for a popist). They also represent the takeover of pop by TV talent shows, the takeover of the TV schedules by reality shows, and the takeover of newspapers by WAG obsession. I'm not saying they're the BEST of the decade, but they score well in a combination of other factors that lean towards significance.

But if we narrowed it down to one more border, to Scotland, the answer would undoubtedly be Franz Ferdinand, and not just because with 5.9m sales of their debut album they've sold more than any other Scots band this decade. They also, to me, embody the big critical argument of the decade: that between popists and rockists. That debut album split so many people, and it seemed to me to split people exactly down those lines - if you enjoy pop music as much as rock music, without irony or talk of enjoying "guilty pleasures", then you like Franz Ferdinand. If you think the stated aim of "making music for girls to dance to" is not an appropriate motivation for a songwriter, you don't like Franz Ferdinand.

So when it came out that this third Franz album was being made in collaboration with Girls Aloud's Xenomania team, it seemed to me like the perfect combo. But things didn't work out apparently, with The Guardian quoting Franz as saying, with shoulders shrugging, "We're not really a pop band". No really, you are! It would miss the point somewhat to subject Franz Ferdinand to the same demands of rock bands - to 'progress' or 'emotionalize' - when really what they need to do is keep pumping out their own style of indie dancefloor singles until we all get bored, and that's the natural lifespan of a pop group. What they're great at isn't going to grow old along with their fans. Tonight: Franz Ferdinand is more like their second album than their first because it has three great songs and the rest is essentially filler: what was praised on You Could Have It So Much Better as "new direction" - Eleanor Put Your Boots On - is retained here with "Katherine Kiss Me", but the combined effect just suggests that a future acoustic ballad route wouldn't play to their strengths. Their strengths, instead, are the hedonistic shuffles and winking dance-offs. "Twilight Omens" suave futurism borrows from Roxy Music's art-pop knack, and the Moroder-referencing "Live Alone" is another highlight. I think "Lucid Dreams", not first single "Ulysses", will be the biggest single from Tonight, thanks to the grand chorus hook and the closing trance-out (which another record I've been listening to recently, Solange's Sol-Angel and the Hadley St Dreams, does too - third last track "Cosmic Journey" melts into exactly the same kind of extended throbbing close-out).

Tonight is one of those very competent albums that will meet no lovers or haters (apart from this astonishingly sandy vagina). It neither boosts Franz's reputation, or harms it, but it probably assures them a fourth album and another stab at matching that debut. But it'll never happen. Their fourth, like their third, will be blithely assigned as "their best since their debut" by critics who forgot how much fun the prior one was to actually listen to; they will remember only how long it was since they listened to it.

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