When the Strokes achieved superstardom through their brand of retro guitar-rock they opened the floodgates for an armada of clones, imitators and trend-hoppers to explode upon the contemporary music scene. From the Hives to the Vines to the Darkness, a plethora of anachronistic garage rock bands vied for commercial attention in a market oversaturated with groups attempting to exploit a craze that, more likely than not, would prove evanescent in the long run.
Most of these old-fashioned garage rock ensembles lacked any true ability or inspiration, hoping that their adherence to the retro phenomenon would mask their defects; thus a torrent of effluvia swept across the contemporary music scene as a parade of me-too groups congested the airwaves and polluted stores shelves.
Amidst this glut of mediocrity it became difficult for any band, regardless of their merit, to stand out, as many of the better acts were obscured by their lesser brethren. Furthermore, many of the groups were backed by the marketing muscle of major record companies, cultivating a healthy buzz even before their albums were released, rendering it all the more difficult for bands who lacked this kind of hype to garner any mainstream attention.
The only recourse left for the bands that lacked studio backing was to conjure some kind of spark to raise public awareness, a catalyst for further interest on both a critical and commercial level. This spark could be something as simple an alluring image or an underground reputation, but without at least some hook these groups could be consigned to irrevocable obscurity.
For Franz Ferdinand this hook came in the form of a song, a hit single that instantly catapulted the band to the top of the charts. The song in question is Take Me Out, an incredibly catchy, cleverly structured rock anthem that proved irresistible to the record-buying public.
Once the band had made this first step toward instilling public awareness in their work, it was a simple matter for a group as talented as Franz Ferdinand to sustain this interest with their other stellar material. Thus the band's eponymous debut album became a huge hit, as Take Me Out became the perfect bait to lure a wider audience in.
There's a reason why the band became instant celebrities, and it's largely thanks to the group's superior songwriting. The group offer a marriage of guitar rock and catchy pop hooks that's as accessible as it is entertaining. The album is remarkably consistent, filled with memorable vocal melodies and clever riffs.
Furthermore, the band manage, at least to some extent, to fashion their own identity that differentiates them from their garage rock peers. There's a subtle decadence that informs much of the album, a hedonistic streak that becomes considerably more pronounced during tracks like the supremely catchy, homo-erotic anthem Michael.
Highlights abound on the album, from Jacqueline with its adroitly handled soft/hard contrasts to the infectious vocal melody in the refrain of The Dark Of The Matinee. Tell Her Tonight was another deserving hit, while Darts Of Pleasure makes another strong showing after premiering as the title track on the band's debut EP, on which it gave a strong case for the band's boundless potential.
Thus Franz Ferdinand's debut, along with albums like Up The Bracket, constitutes the zenith of the retro garage rock movement, providing ample hooks, rocking power and a compelling sound. Take Me Out may have proven to be the key to the band's success, but it's Franz Ferdinand's consistency and unique flavor that truly made the group take off.
Between Franz Ferdinand and the Libertines it's clear that the UK has much to offer in the way of compelling guitar rock bands, eclipsing the likes of America's own the Strokes. Thus while the movement may have been born in the USA it's been perfected overseas, not so much a usurpation as an elegant refinement.
Unlike many of their much hyped peers, Franz Ferdinand had never been groomed for greatness; ergo when they found themselves overnight celebrities thanks to the unexpected success of the single Take Me Out and their eponymous full length debut, they recognized the uncertainty of their situation and responded accordingly.
While they had made a tangible impact on the rock music scene, Franz Ferdinand were still only one of many successful groups operating in the guitar-rock milieu, and if they remained inactive for a prolonged period of time they would simply be forgotten, replaced with one of many prospective generic garage rock candidates.
Thus to prevent this from happening the band acted immediately, releasing their sophomore effort a mere year after their auspicious first outing. This would enable them to remain in the collective public consciousness rather than being relegated to the role of 'one hit wonders' in the annals of rock history.
While this decision did indeed grant the band the broader exposure they so sorely needed, sustaining their presence in the public eye, it also impeded their progression as rock artists, forcing them to release an album that's transparently rushed and underdeveloped.
Fortunately the band was sufficiently gifted that this course, which would usually result in a terminally poor product, still yielded quite a solid offering. While the album does suffer from its share of filler, it also features quite a few strong tracks, from the pop rocker The Fallen to the adrenaline rush of the manic Evil And A Heathen to the moody You're The Reason I'm Leaving, any of which would have been eminently worthy of inclusion on the band's stellar debut.
The band do exhibit a healthy level of ambition on the album rather than remaining complacent in the narrow retro garage rock genre, and this leads to a greater measure of diversity than one would usually be accustomed to encountering on a CD in the guitar rock mold. Thus Eleanor Put You Boots On is a soft, piano driven number with a disarming gentleness and naiveté that's completely at odds with the band's usual cynical and somewhat hedonistic ethos, and all the more charming for it.
Elsewhere Walk Away is a bland ballad that's salvaged by a catchy refrain, a choice of genre that's a rarity for a band that generally eschews balladry in favor of pop rockers.
The band's usual decadent overtones are still in force on the album, manifesting themselves particularly strongly on the seductive I'm Your Villain. This doesn't make for one of the better numbers on a musical level, but it helps inject the band's unique character into the mix, and it's always encouraging when individuality defeats conformity on a retro guitar rock album.
Even with the departures from the genre's norm, however, You Could Have It So Much Better still largely feels like a rehash of the band's debut, and an inferior one at that. All the same, given the band's prodigious gifts even an inferior iteration has a lot going for it, with a handful of catchy tones and a healthy dose of genre-defying personality.
Thus You Could Have It So Much Better is a solid affair. Had the band taken the time to pen more high quality tunes and further refine their product the resultant album would doubtless have been far more impressive, but even with the limitations and restrictions of their narrow time frame the CD is still quite enjoyable, another worthwhile release from one of the top groups in the retro garage rock paradigm.
Nearly every facet of Franz Ferdinand's sophomore effort, You Could Have It So Much Better, betrayed the fact that it was a rushed product, hastily and haphazardly slapped together to capitalize on the monumental commercial success of the band's eponymously titled debut.
Fortunately, to avoid a repeat of that erratic rehash Franz Ferdinand opted to take a sabbatical that lasted years as opposed to months before releasing their third album. Apparently extending their hiatus not only renewed their creative faculties but likewise fostered greater ambition in the band, as their latest outing, the generically titled Tonight, is also the group's first concept album.
This concept is so non-intrusive that it borders on nonexistence; depicting a long night of nocturnal debauchery, the areas that the album focuses on, from sexual decadence to narcotics-fueled hedonism, were all already very much in the domain of rock music either with or without the accompaniment of a flimsy narrative. Nevertheless Franz Ferdinand should be commended for even trying their hand at a concept album, both for braving the critical stigma that's inherent to the form in this day and age and for attempting to expand their artistic horizons.
The addition of an overarching concept isn't the only change that Franz Ferdinand have undergone. The use of synths is highly prevalent on the album, integral to the arrangements of nearly every track on the CD. Fortunately the band don't abuse the instrument a la myriad eighties rock outfits; rather than gratuitously superimposing layers of synths over every note, they utilize them in an organic fashion that perfectly complements their melodies. Despite emphasizing synths at the expense of their customary guitar-oriented sound Franz Ferdinand still convey the same style, spirit and image that they always have, merely filtered through a different medium. The synths capture the soul of Franz Ferdinand with the same deftness and precision that the band's guitarwork always had, adroitly translating the group's essence over the course of the entire album.
Tonight's opener, Ulysses, is so named as an allusion to the mythical hero and his legendary journey home, but truth be told invoking James Joyce's magnum opus would be far more apt, either conjuring images of the phantasmagorical Night Town or referring to the fact that, much like Franz Ferdinand's album, the events of the novel transpire over the course of a single day.
Regardless of the title's thematic connotations, Ulysses is a stellar opener, with a radio-friendly melody and lyrics that instantly set the mood of the entire album. Truth be told, however, nearly every track boasts a stellar, unforgettable melody, from No You Girls (complete with an irresistible hook-filled refrain) to the tenebrous classic Twilight Omens to the catchy erotica of Bite Hard.
While Tonight is bereft of filler, the tracks on the first half of the album tend to be somewhat more compelling than the remainder. Furthermore, while Lucid Dreams is yet another solid tune it's irreparably marred by a tacked-on grating, interminable electronica coda. Some praise that techno jam, lauding the group for their experimental daring; if it is an experiment, however, one would assume that anyone in full possession of their mental faculties could anticipate the results of said experiment without feeling compelled to inflict it upon the listener.
The album's chief liability, much like its predecessor, is that there's only a modicum of progression exhibited over the course of the CD. While the transition to synth-based arrangements is a new development, as stated before the ultimate musical experience is seldom dramatically changed by that instrumental shift.
Furthermore, despite Tonight's status as a concept album its lyrics are much the same as Franz Ferdinand's lyrics on their previous work, centering around the same decadent core that informs the bulk of their output.
Nonetheless, the band can easily be forgiven for their lack of artistic evolution; truth be told, no one would expect many of the groups that Franz Ferdiand are often compared to, such as The Strokes, to experience any kind of progression at all, and it's a testament to how superior Franz Ferdinand are to many of their contemporaries that such expectations would even be placed on them at all.
Thus Tonight is a superb pop/rock album, a triumphant return to form after the solid but uninspired You Could Have It So Much Better. Tonight is truly on par with the band's debut, filled with terrific melodies and a seemingly never-ending reservoir of captivating hooks. What changes there are are uniformly well-implemented, and even if the CD has little reason to be a concept album the very notion of a band in this genre attempting to make one is quite refreshing in and of itself.
It's hard to imagine an album more superfluous than Blood. Comprised of remixes of nine tracks from Tonight, the album simply does nothing over the course of its near forty-minute runtime to justify its existence.
These reinterpretations of Tonight's content fail to add anything of worth to the originals. Moreover, the guiding philosophy that informs the album seems to be 'let's try something interesting' as opposed to 'let's try something that suits the material' or even 'let's try something good.'
There's a common, and decidedly dangerous, misconception that experimentation is an inherently good thing. All too often, however, experimentation leads to masturbatory self-indulgence, pretentious excesses and ambitions that a group is incapable of carrying to fruition.
Such is the case with Blood, an album that takes many risks that seldom pay off. Taking risks is often seen as admirable, particularly for a group as firmly entrenched in the mainstream as Franz Ferdinand, but personally I find strong songwriting and accomplished performances far more admirable than haphazardly applying studio trickery to tracks that were bordering on over-produced to begin with.
One of the main problems arises from the very nature of the album Blood shamelessly borrows from. The songs on Tonight are not works of art. They are simply entertaining, catchy pop songs (not that there's anything wrong with that). By virtue of this status as basic pop songs the tracks are almost uniformly not conducive to the kind of sonic exploration that Franz Ferdinand apparently wish to engage in.
From a structural perspective Tonight's tracks work because they adhere so closely to a traditional pop formula, and thus when they're twisted to accommodate the avant garde pretensions of an innately commercially-minded ensemble they invariably cease to cohere and degenerate into gimmick-fetishizing aural meanderings. The songs gain nothing from this ill-advised metamorphosis, and lose the very qualities that make them entertaining in the first place.
Blood even lacks the tone and feel of a Franz Ferdinand album. The smug decadence that permeates the band's work is conspicuously absent, lost somewhere in the translation from infectious, hedonistic pop to techno textures and artistic posturing. I would even go so far as to say that the album feels soulless, particularly when it dabbles in detached electronica and distorts the very essence of the original renditions.
It's hard to imagine that a refrain as catchy as 'you girls will never know' can be mangled to the point of becoming an unrecognizable irritation, but on
Katherine Hit Me the band manage that feat. The same situation applies to nearly every cut on the album, as Blood offers an array of once profoundly enjoyable pop songs that have been bastardized and butchered for very little tangible gain.
Thus Blood is a cruel perversion of an entertaining album and simply should never have been made under any circumstances. The album adds nothing worthwhile to Tonight, and is far more grating than it ever is enjoyable. Blood doesn't even work as a curiosity, as its novelty value wears thin only a few minutes in.
I won't praise Franz Ferdinand for taking this risk, as Blood simply doesn't deserve any praise. It's a grating and tedious affair, and it can't even be recommended for fans of Tonight; on the contrary, it's fans of Tonight who'll despise it the most.