Thoughts on FFS (Franz Ferdinand and Sparks) at the Fox Theater, Oakland (10/15/15)

 

I know it's blurry. I was dancing! (Photo © Joyce Millman)
I know it’s blurry. I was dancing!
(Photo © Joyce Millman)

The vibe at FFS’s Oct. 15 tour finale at the Fox Theater in Oakland was equal parts warm and fuzzy. The fuzziness was provided by two furry friends on the terrace dance floor, one in full fox costume, the other in cat, who were spotted dancing, snapping photos and generally living their best lives amid the happy throng of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks fans. The warmth came from the way these two bands — one American, one Scottish; one with a career spanning over 40 years, one formed in 2002 — played together as a new entity on stage. There was genuine love and respect in the way Franz’s Alex Kapranos gave Sparks’ Russell Mael a thumbs up and a smile after Mael nailed the final operatic vocal flourishes of Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” and in the bands’ final communal embraces after the rock-operetta, “Collaborations Don’t Work.”

Everything that works about FFS on their self-titled record — the joyful blending of two unorthodox, uncategorizable bands into one pop/rock/glam/disco/cabaret rarity — worked even better live. The brainy, self-effacing humor was evident from the moment FFS took the stage to the grandiosely cheesy theme from the British cult sci-fi series “Blake’s 7” to stand motionless while Ron Mael struck the plummy opening piano chords for “Johnny Delusional.” Then, Russell Mael, resplendent in a black and white striped poncho, and Kapranos, in a splatter-print disco shirt tucked into black trousers with a coy orange stripe up the inseam, began a display of the most awksome dancing I’ve ever witnessed on a stage.

But this wasn’t camp. This was a celebration of dancing to one’s own beautiful beat, and a heartfelt expression of two bands’ love for the same far-flung musical influences. It was as if this tour liberated Franz Ferdinand and Sparks from any expectations other than their own, and Kapranos and Russell used their considerable charm as frontmen to pull the audience along with them.

So, on a glitter-ball mash up of Sparks’ “When Do I Get to Sing My Way” and FFS’s “Call Girl,” the band gave us absolutely un-ironic old school disco, Franz’s Nick McCarthy chugging out Chic rhythm chords, while Kapranos did some swirling, hip-thrusting interpretive dancing that referenced both Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” and David Bowie circa “Young Americans.”  But on “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” the dramatic lighting, lush synthesizer tones and McCarthy’s twanging Spaghetti Western guitar solo placed Kapranos’ world-weary ballad of a failed terrorist into the realm of Leonard Cohen-meets-Lee Hazlewood.  Then there was the candy-bright J-pop of “So Desu Ne,” made even giddier when four band members shared one keyboard, and an indelible image of Russell Mael and Kapranos bouncing up and down in unison (along with the audience) to the meaty, staccato rhythm of Franz’s “Take Me Out.”

Each song took us someplace new, in terms of style and sound, but instead of being dizzying, it was intoxicating. There’s a lot to be said for a band looking like its members are having the most fun they’ve ever had in their lives.

The emotional high point of the show was a transcendent performance of Sparks’ “The Number One Song in Heaven,” with McCarthy, Russell Mael and Kapranos lined up at the mikes, each dancing their own quirky moves, thrusting index fingers heavenward on the chorus. The lyrics are a kind of pop sermon on the mount, except delivering a reverse gospel that music shouldn’t be taken as The Word to remain eternally enshrined and unchanged: “The song filters down, down through the clouds/ It reaches the earth and winds all around/And then it breaks up in millions of ways.” Music is a gift for us mortals to use however we need it, whether that’s (to paraphrase the lyrics) as a hit tune, an advertising jingle or a child’s playtime taunt. Everything about the FFS project, from its “aw-hell, let’s do this” inception to the uninhibited triumph of the live show circles back to the idea in “Number One Song” that music is both universal and communal, yet deeply and thrillingly personal.

For the first opening act, FFS chose Carletta Sue Kay, the female persona of Bay Area performance artist Randy Walker, who stood center stage in a wig and an Angry Birds costume worn as a dress and blew the roof off. Then, for something completely different, came The Intelligence, a Seattle post-punk band. The diversity of the bill added to the one-big-pop-party atmosphere inside the Fox (the furries didn’t hurt, either), potently underscoring FFS’s vision of musical inclusiveness.

“Just think, a world ruled by weirdos,” was how my friend Charley Taylor  affectionately summed up the FFS show he saw in Boston at the start of this short American tour. At the Fox, when Ron Mael stepped out from behind his iconic Ronald keyboard, shed his mask of dourness and burst into a grinning breakdance across the stage on “The Number One Song in Heaven,” you couldn’t help but grin along with him, grateful that, for this night at least, the weirdos won.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

It’s number one all over heaven

Bomp-bomp, diddy-diddy

 

FFS: A mind-meld you can dance to

The drummer is always the first to go.
The drummer is always the first one to go.

 

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