Consider the Cronut. Croissant, donut — what could go wrong? A lot, actually. Some things, while fine on their own, are not meant to be combined. But once in a while, a collaboration comes along that’s so harmonious it enhances the distinct charms of each element, while becoming something entirely new and astoundingly delicious. Like peanut butter and marshmallow creme. Or, as it turns out, Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. FFS, the new, self-titled blending of these two outwardly disparate ingredients, is a luscious pop treat, salty and sweet with sticky melodies and savory wit. I mean this in the best way possible: FFS is a big, satisfying Fluffernutter of a debut album.
But first, a digression …
I won’t lie. I never really paid much attention to Sparks until late last year when Franz Ferdinand announced the collaboration. Although I was alive and listening to music in 1974 when Sparks’ breakthrough album Kimono My House was released, L.A.-raised brothers Ron and Russell Mael were too weird for my Stones- and- Zep-loving teenaged self. I knew who they were, from reading Creem magazine (androgynous, falsetto-singing Russell certainly was easy on the eyes), but they weren’t in heavy rotation on the radio station I listened to. Also, Ron’s stern visage and Hitler mustache creeped me out. Some years later, when I was writing about music for a living, I could have and should have given Sparks a chance, but I didn’t. This was wrong and I’m sorry.
So thank you to Franz Ferdinand, a band that I’ve long admired, for challenging their fans to become acquainted with the Maels’ catalogue (22 albums deep). I wanted to hear what drew the impeccable Glasgow art-pop-dance-rock-whatevers to the eccentric Maels, who are now in their late sixties. I started by reading this exhaustive overview of Sparks’ first 20 albums. That led to crate-digging and long trawls through You Tube, and I quickly discovered two things: I love Sparks, and, I am an idiot for not realizing this decades ago.
If I had, I would have known that Sparks got to operatic glam-rock before Queen did, perfected the naif-ish narrative voice before David Byrne and made techno-disco before Daft Punk. I would have had years more pleasure listening to the cerebral/surreal humor of their lyrics, which are like Monty Python with a poker face to match Ron’s. I would have discovered sooner that Kimono My House and Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins (1995) were two of my favorite albums, ever. And when I first heard the shouted-in-unison chorus of Franz Ferdinand’s “What She Came For,” I would have jumped up and said, “Aha! That reminds me of ‘The Rhythm Thief’ from Sparks’ Lil’ Beethoven” album!
Live and learn.
The story FFS is telling about their union is that the Maels approached Franz Ferdinand back in 2004 when the latter were blowing up with “Take Me Out.” It isn’t hard to figure out why Sparks dug the ambitious and unorthodox structure of “Take Me Out”; with its front-loaded verses, it’s all chorus and riff and, in 2004, sounded like nothing else on the radio.
But the more you listen to both bands, the more you see the deeper connections between them. Franz Ferdinand and Sparks share an omnivorous approach to pop music, playing with genre and instrumentation (neither band ever met an electronic keyboard sound it didn’t like). Ron Mael and Alex Kapranos favor intelligent, cheeky jigsaw-puzzle assemblages of lyrics that often become part of the rhythm — listen to the heady clashes of consonants on Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” and Franz Ferdinand’s “The Fallen.” And both bands have a heart, though they don’t wear it on their sleeves; there is deep empathy beneath the deceptively jokey premise of Sparks’ “The Ghost of Liberace,” for example, and an aching wistfulness shadows the philosophical posturing of Franz’s “Fresh Strawberries.”
FFS choose to lead with their hearts on the new album. The first track, “Johnny Delusional,” is a sad song masquerading as a sunny one, about a poor sap who’s “borderline attractive from afar,” and in love with a woman who doesn’t know he exists. It opens with some stately Ron Mael piano chords, then turns into a bouncing disco beat that would mash-up nicely with Sparks’ Gratuitous Sax version of (maybe) their masterpiece, “When Do I Get to Sing My Way?” Kapranos and Russell Mael alternate on the verses but blend so seamlessly on the multi-tracked chorus and outro that it’s hard to tell where one voice ends and the other begins. Like “When Do I Get to Sing My Way?,” “Johnny Delusional” is a song about a nobody yearning to be noticed and loved: “Though I want you/ I know I haven’t a chance/ Still I want you/ Johnny Delusional here.” Like “My Way,” the song takes a minor-chord dip on the choruses that hits you like a pang of despair.
“Johnny Delusional” sets the theme of the first four songs — little men who want to be big. There seems to be a direct relationship between “Johnny Delusional” and the song that follows, “Call Girl.” Over a suave synth dance track that wouldn’t be out of place on Franz’s Tonight, Kapranos and Russell sing as one in the familiar Sparks narrative voice: here’s another earnest sap who can’t see the romantic truth staring him in the face. Like Johnny, he’s in love with an unreachable woman. That she’s a prostitute apparently fails to register: “I gave up blow and Adderall for you/ So I’d have dough and spend it all on you/ So call girl, why don’t you give me a ring/ Call girl, pick up and ring.”
The next two songs, “Dictator’s Son” and “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” look at males with delusions of grandeur from two sides of the same coin. “Dictator’s Son” is a darkly comical profile of an autocrat-in-training, “born with a silver gun,” from “a nation of fearful men and women afraid of them,” as he heads to L.A. to bask in Western culture (“I’m into Hugo Boss/dental floss … coed’s knees, BLT’s”). With its staccato circular piano riff and Russell’s falsetto dominant in the mix, this is the most Sparks-sounding song on the album. But there is nothing comical about the haunting “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” which sounds like the nihilistic last thoughts of a terrorist (or an average, everyday mass murderer) justifying his suicide mission. The atmospheric ballad is sung with a quiet chill by Kapranos, with Russell’s soaring falsetto joining in on the “no heroes, just those who care more for their legend than their life” chorus, the melody of which ranks as one of the most beautiful that Sparks or Franz have ever written.
I also like the back-to-back placement of “Things I Won’t Get,” a list of unattainable intellectual and material goals sung artlessly by Franz guitarist Nick McCarthy, and the social-climbing satire “The Power Couple.” Where “Things” offers a sweet grasp on what’s truly important in life (“When I see you lying by my side looking extra clean/ I’m in a state where I don’t mind/ My thoughts turn obscene”), “The Power Couple” lunges forward on a marching piano and martial drumming, with a choir of Alexes and Russells, all fiercely calculated ambition, declaring, “We must make a good impression/ We must make a GREAT impression!”
The balance of FFS is insistently danceable and fabulously strange. The clever, frenetic electronic pop of “Police Encounters” and “So Desu Ne” fuses the sound and sensibilities of both bands into something vaguely familiar but, ultimately, not easily pegged to either one. And, as an introvert, I have been waiting all my life for “Piss Off,” a joyous sing-along halfway between a football chant and a 1940s Hollywood musical showstopper that gives the middle finger to all the clattering, nattering intrusions on precious solitude.
The album’s magnum opus, clocking in at 6:42, is the self-referential and very funny operetta, “Collaborations Don’t Work,” a dazzling mosaic of shifting tempos, styles and orchestration reminiscent of the chamber pop of Sparks’ Lil’ Beethoven album. The lyrics chart the stages of collaboration from hopeful beginnings (“you start off deferential and strangely reverential”) to verbal axe-throwing, Russell in full diva falsetto trilling, “I don’t need your navel-gazing!” and Kapranos responding, “I don’t get your way of phrasing!” All six members of FFS enter the fray, each singing lines on the mid-section (yes, even Franz bassist “Silent” Bob Hardy!). And there’s a great moment when Franz Ferdinand feigns, “Oh, screw it,” and asserts its will with the most overtly Franz-sounding passage on the record, all slicing drums and stabby guitars and Kapranos crowing, “I ain’t no collaborator … I am the sadistic young usurper … If I ever need a father, it won’t be you, old man!”
Obviously, he’s joking. What FFS have made together is truly rare; the album doesn’t sound or feel like an awkward grafting of one band onto another. Instead, it’s as if Franz Ferdinand and Sparks have created a musical playground where the cool kids and the freaks could hang together outside of labels and comfort zones. It’s liberating to hear Franz let out their inner nerd, and gratifying to hear Sparks playing modern pop again. FFS begin a European tour this month, with U.S. dates to come in the fall, and it’ll be interesting to see what the fans of each band make of this new entity. Some advice? Don’t let the Hitler mustache scare you away.
“Johnny Delusional” by FFS (Official Audio)
“When Do I Get to Sing My Way?” by Sparks
And then, there’s this.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015