The debut long player by FFS could easily be titled ‘Art School Musical’. A union of FRANZ FERDINAND and SPARKS, unlike many collaborations which are often distant and detached, this visceral project has centred around working as a six piece band together in a room. The partnership appears to have invigorated both acts too. SPARKS’ career has generally been very up and down commercially, but Russell and Ron Mael have never been deterred by public or media ambivalence and the siblings have always returned like a phoenix from the flames when people least expected it.
Following their initial success between 1974-75 with brilliant singles such as ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’, ‘Amateur Hour’ ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’ and ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’, they fell out of public favour for a time until Giorgio Moroder attached their eccentric sound to disco friendly electronics for the 1979 hits ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ and ‘Beat The Clock’. The Mael brothers would not trouble the UK and European charts again until 1994 with ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’, but it fittingly led to acknowledgment from the Britpop scene with members of SUEDE, PULP and BLUR all publically displaying signs of approval.
Meanwhile within the Glasgow art school scene in 2002, FRANZ FERDINAND formed and the song they attempted at their first ever band rehearsal was ‘Achoo’ by SPARKS. The quartet would go on to make an impact with their tempo changing guitar driven dance rock on singles like the catchy ‘Take Me Out’ and a send-up of their art school roots ‘Do You Want To’. It was around this time that a collaboration with SPARKS was first mooted, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the idea began to have realistic momentum.
So with the singer of THE KAISER CHIEFS now acting as a talent show judge and THE KILLERS more or less turning into the next U2, it is down to FRANZ FERDINAND to snatch back the intellectual artistic high ground in association with their spiritual godfathers. FFS could well also put the Mael Brothers back in the mainstream for the fourth time in a very long career of over 45 years. A great example of how this relationship has gelled is reflected on the ironically titled ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’.
A seven minute journey that is a glorious cut ’n’ paste of both bands, there’s a terrific moment when it sounds like QUEEN with Russell Mael and Alex Kapranos exchanging operatic rants of “I don’t need your patronising! – I don’t need your agonising!”.
But then, it turns into Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Highwayman’, as well as mutating into buzzy synthpop, spacey jazz, a showtune and a classical mini-symphony along the way! It is bonkers and brilliant!
The album starts however with ‘Johnny Delusional’, a stomping indie rocker with Russell Mael’s trademark falsetto and Ron Mael’s piano interludes augmented by stabs of octave bass synth. The lyrical couplet of “I want you, I know I haven’t a chance – Johnny Delusional here” accurately conveys the resigned inadequacy and awkwardness of the narrative.
‘Call Girl’ is very synth laden with a Minimoog Voyager making its presence felt. While it revisits SPARKS past adventures in Europop, the FRANZ FERDINAND element provides the Mael brothers with a thumping powertrain from Bob Hardy and Paul Thomson that probably wouldn’t have manifested itself had Russell and Ron been working alone in LA.
Beginning a little like the Midge Ure B-side ‘Piano’, ‘Dictator’s Son’ takes a choppy art rock backbone and fills it with drama. It’s an amusingly ironic title considering the controversy over Ron Mael’s look when SPARKS first famously appeared on ‘Top Of The Pops’ in 1974. Meanwhile, the sparse ballad ‘Little Guy From The Suburbs’ has hints of Ennio Morrricone. With the line “There are no heroes in this life”, it is perhaps the most serious piece on the FFS collection.
Alongside some outre synth movements on ‘Police Encounters’, Russell’s breakneck speed wordplay is electronically treated as he keeps up with this bouncy slice of phased percussive madness. ‘Save Me From Myself’ features those classic SPARKS staccato ivories and with a soaring chorus and a wonderful multi-tracked vocal passage for the middle eight, it is the closest to their Mack produced tracks like ‘Angst In My Pants’.
The most electronic track on ‘FFS’ comes with ‘So Desu Ne’, a marvellously squelchy number that conceptually harks back to SPARKS’ breakthrough album ‘Kimono My House’. With drum machine, vibrato synth stabs and surreal references to Japanese culture like “a Hello Kitty Uzi” and “a Kenzo kimono”, it is rhythmically angular with a great use of samples sourced from Alex and Russell’s voices towards the close.
After all the quirky art school banter, ‘FFS’ becomes more straightforward with ‘The Man Without A Tan’ and ‘Things I Won’t Get’. Scratchy guitars and driving electric bass with bizarre orchestral sections dominate the former which comes over more as archetypical FRANZ FERDINAND, while the latter sees Franz’s Nick McCarthy take on lead vocals to deadpan an unattainable shopping list that includes Hugo Boss and Air Jordan. However, it’s a number that doesn’t become that interesting until Russell harmonises with his trademark falsetto.
It all gets quirky again on ‘The Power Couple’ where a tumbling rhythm provides a domino effect, like a circus clown march. Russell takes on an unusually low register as Alex adopts a midtone snarl in a neo-gothic piece that comes over like a Brechtian set piece adapted by MUSE. “We must make a good impression” they chant.
‘P*ss Off’ is possibly the album’s most outstanding number and one of the songs of the year. As Ron Mael’s first offering to FFS when it was first mooted in 2004, it makes a highly fitting closer. With the vibrancy of ‘Kimono My House’ and ‘Propaganda’ era SPARKS, there are jaunty ivories and camp vocal theatrics in the vein of classics like ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’ and ‘BC’. “It’s inexplicable” they all growl as the multi-track phrase of “HARMONIES” kicks in! A total joy, ‘P*ss Off’ is the ultimate two fingered anthem and is sure to become a future live favourite for SPARKS and FRANZ FERDINAND when they inevitably go their separate ways.
Like the sorcerer working with the apprentice to double the magical power, over period of just over two weeks, FFS have recorded an entertaining compendium of anecdotes that will appeal to armchair enthusiasts of SPARKS and FRANZ FERDINAND. ‘FFS’ is the most accessible work that either act has produced for several years. Full of wit and repartee, this is the sound of six individuals having a lot of fun but additionally, making something artistically spiky and satisfying.
‘FFS’ is released by Domino Records in CD, deluxe CD with bonus tracks, red vinyl double LP and download variants
FFS play the following UK dates: Glasgow Art School (16th June), London Troxy (26th June), Manchester Albert Hall (29th August)
Text by Chi Ming Lai
9th June 2015