Sound — 9
I've been a Franz fan since summer 2004; they were one of those rare bands that instantly hooked me and would not let me put them down. They've had their ups and downs, and I still feel like they have so many unheard B-sides that would be great album tracks, but overall I still think they deserve the hype. They're danceable, they're catchy, they're a bit weird, and it just works for me. I had a few different impressions of the new album that converged over the course of the last year. The band started playing some new songs back in early 2008 (probably earlier, even) and after hearing some bootlegs, I was quite sold on a few songs. Needless to say, some continued to evolve and some got the chop-- I'm not gonna lie, I'm bummed that Anyone in Love was relegated to a B-side and I thought A New Kind of Thrill was better a year ago than it is now. I wasn't so sure about the album as a whole when I first listened all the way through-- I'd previewed the songs and had definitely been hooked on all of them, but I felt it was a bit inconsistent in certain bits. This feeling has definitely waned with repeat listens-- I still go back to the first album and find things I didn't notice before, which I quite enjoy. Though I was glad to hear that they were taking greater advantage of Nick McCarthy's classical piano training, I was initially a bit worried that they'd ditch the guitars in favor of the synth; thankfully, they reached a happy medium. They do have a determined way of keeping their sound unique; whether it's drawing influence from traditional Greek tunes and Ethiopian rhythms, or using a human skeleton as percussion in No You Girls, they seem to have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. (I wonder how that old Ackuset of theirs is running these days.) Still, I'm sort of on the fence about certain parts of songs-- like the seemingly-random part towards the end of Live Alone, which otherwise I find to be a great song. I like Twilight Omens, but there's something about the melody of the verse and the lyrics that I really can't get into. From listening to different versions of the songs as they developed over time, I know they tend to cut and paste bits of one song into another until they find what they're looking for. At first, I felt like perhaps they sort of left the job half-finished, that more refinement was needed to keep from being jarring (as in a few songs on their sophomore album) but it's definitely grown on me. Bob Hardy, the bassist, has remarkably improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the three albums. Considering he was a complete novice when the band started, to his credit, the bass lines have definitely gotten more and more interesting; Ulysses stands out in particular. For all their talking about how the new album was going to be more low-end-centric, though, I wish they would've more consistently brought the bass to the forefront. Paul Thomson (drums) is always great. Enough said. And McCarthy's synth riffs took their sound in a whole new direction, which I love. Maybe he'll be pulling out the old double-bass for the next one, ha. (They actually do know how to swing it, and well; see also, So Much Better in Hoboken and the acoustic version of 40'.) Overall, I think taking time off from recording and touring served them well; the album seems like it contains a new, refreshed sense of purpose. The sound could be fuller in parts, I feel, but at the same time, I think they took pains to stay true to their jangly, garage rock sound and not get too polished, packaged, or clean. And I can dig that.
Lyrics — 8
I was pleasantly surprised by the lyrics on this album. Kapranos and McCarthy generally shoulder the songwriting duties, and I think their tongue-in-cheek wit is definitely well utilized. There's less of the vacuous, purely dance-driven lyrics of their debut; still catchy, but the songs seem filled with purpose and meaning that isn't always easy to spot in Franz songs unless you happen to know the backstory. Twilight Omens strikes me as a little juvenile (mostly the part about the calculator, I'd have to say. I think it could've been better-worded.) Overall, I think Kapranos especially has a knack for exploring complex relationships and sentiments; nothing is quite straight-forward, and it makes a far more interesting listen (once you get past the beats and pay attention to what he's saying.) Definitely still the time-honored Franz themes of sex, drugs, partying and debauchery, but Ulysses was so named for the famed protagonist of Homer's Odyssey who was lost for ten years. They're smart, which I like, but they don't bash you over the head, which I respect. And as mentioned, I dig their sometimes-subtle, sometimes-not sense of humor. And they borrow from bands like the Beatles, Smiths, and Belle & Sebastian in artfully combining uptempo/upbeat music with lyrics that are rather darker. Kapranos pulls out the falsetto a lot more in this album than in the previous two, which is both exciting and a bit worrying, as he seems to not sing in his upper range very well when he's onstage. Maybe he's been practicing. Though I like the quality of his voice; namely his hybrid accent and the fact that he doesn't sound like a fourteen-year-old girl like so many supposed 'singers' out there. I wouldn't consider him amazing on a technical level, as he can get a bit shouty and thin in his upper registers, but he makes up for it with plenty of character. If you've heard his old band, The Karelia, you know how clever he is at manipulating his voice and delivery to suit the song and the characters in his lyrics. His versatility is impressive-- and on certain songs, like B-sides Love and Destroy, if you amp up the bass and go into another room, he really does sound like Satan. How can you not love that? My biggest complaint re: vocals is that Nick McCarthy (guitar, keys, vocals) and Paul Thomson (drums, backing vocals) don't get as much limelight. They're both quite talented in their own right and I was hoping to hear them sing more than just back-up this time round. But the harmonies are fantastic throughout, so I really shouldn't complain. Overall, I found the lyrics on this album to be generally quite excellent, with some exceptions. Most of the songs do have rather interesting stories behind them, so if the words seem abstract at times, it's usually an attempt on their part to take a specific event and make it more broad or accessible. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
Overall Impression — 9
Song by song, here's my impressions: 01.Ulysses: at first, it sort of made me laugh. White boy Kapranos trying to do some breathy rap thing? Yeah, whatever. But by the time I was through my first listen, I had to forgive him. I listened to the song about 47 times in the two days before I got my hands on the rest of the album, if that says anything. The lyrics aren't amazing, but they aren't bad, either; more distilled, like a lot of their old work. I dig the vocals and shouting, the percussion and bass are A+, and I love the synths. Generally just a fucking rad song to rock-out to. 02.Turn It On: I already knew I would love this song when I got the album, and I was pleased that they didn't change it much from the bootlegs. The bass is spot-on, the lyrics are so hysterically creepy, and I dig the riffs. Quite catchy, though I wish the instrumentation during the chorus was a bit fuller; I want more guitars in the mix. 03.No You Girls: the intro is great, but I feel like the first verse is pretty boring. It's not awful, I just wish they would have done a little more with the melody, it's practically monotone and pretty repetitive. Once you get about a minute in, it really heats up and doesn't let down from there. I'm a bit in love with this one. Great guitars, and great vocals. The lyrics make me laugh, as they remind me just a bit of Men's Needs by The Cribs, which Alex produced. HMM, nice one, Kapranos. And the bone-rattles are fucking sweet. 04.Send Him Away: finally, a Franz 'ballad' that rocks out. The lyrics and vocals are excellent, the guitars are wonderful and understated, and I pretty much cannot find fault with the song. Nicely atmospheric use of the synths. 05.Twilight Omens: I'm probably just biased against anything called 'Twilight' right now, but I'm sort of on the fence with this song. I think the vocals and lyrics of the verses are a bit god-awful, but the bridge and chorus are awesome, and I love the weird, creepy keyboards. I just feel they could've tweaked it more, it's got the same problem as No You Girls. 06.Bite Hard: one of the favorite Franz tricks is to give songs a pseudo-start, and this one is a prime example. The piano and quiet vocals feel a bit weird, following the intensity of Twilight Omens, but it soon heats up when the bass and drums come in, and by the chorus, it's definitely in full-stride. According to Kapranos, the song is about not believing in God, but still needing something else to find refuge in. I didn't really get that out of it, just from casually listening, but that is the way of the Franz for you. It's there if you look for it, but it won't keep you from just enjoying the song for what it is. Not as 'catchy' as some of their other songs, but this isn't a detriment. 07.What She Came For: one of my favorites on the album, to be sure. The bass and lyrics essentially ooze sex. The verses are a bit stripped down, and then the chorus zooms in and essentially hits you upside the head. This is another one where I wish the instrumentation was a bit fuller in parts, but shit, if there was ever a song to turn me into a vapid, horny fangirl, this would be it. And there's a weird 70s-glam transition right before the guitar solo at the end that gets me every time. Like Ulysses, this one is Hot Shit. 08.Live Alone: this one sounds more like Send Him Away and Twilight Omens... it lives in a strange synthy world, whereas some of the other songs are a bit more down and dirty (Ulysses, What She Came For), and others tend to hearken back to ye olde days of Franz (Turn It On, No You Girls). My main complaint about it is the seemingly-disjointed interlude towards the end. There's a vaguely funny story behind it, namely making fun of Hardy's tendency to say 'man' all the time when they're in America, but it doesn't seem to connect with the rest of the song. I love the lyrics, that bit aside. 09.Can't Stop Feeling: this one is fucking sick. Freakishly catchy and eerie and atmospheric all at once, with an A+ bassline. It's been floating around for ages as a B-side, and while the old one sort of sounded like the kind of song a corny anime show would play during the intro credits, this new version is all grown up and pretty damn epic. The vocals are excellent, even if the lyrics aren't as fleshed out as they could be. 10.Lucid Dreams: at first, I thought the radio-friendly version of this that was released a while back was amazing and when I heard the 7 minute album version, I was rather disappointed. The lyrics had significantly changed, as had the melody, the chorus... it barely seemed like the same song. The more I listen to it, the more I dig it, but I like the energy of the original version they did, and the lyrics that got cut out were pretty awesome. It would have fit in better with all the songs in the beginning of the album, I thought. Still, it was cool to hear something entirely different, and yet still related. Once it gets to the first chorus, it's pretty damn awesome, then slowly simmers down as it goes along. 11.Dream Again: this song makes it more obvious why they put Lucid Dreams where they did. It sort of leads you into this one, which has a distinctly Magnetic Fields-feel to it. It was the only song where I immediately thought of another band while listening. I like it a lot, though at first I felt like it didn't fit. But the overarching theme of the record is that it's supposed to get you amped up for a night out, then carry you into the next morning. As a transition, it works. But I'm greedy for the danciness, so it's not my favorite. 12.Katherine Kiss Me: this song went through a few different phases and names, and I like how it turned out. The only acoustic, genuinely mellow song on the album, it's supposed to be the morning-after antidote to the hedonistic night of before (unless that's just Kapranos blowing smoke up our asses.) Though it doesn't fit the mold, it's a lovely, quiet song with beautiful guitar picking and the piano fits perfectly. And I love the lyrics, which repeat some of the lines found in No You Girls; it's a device that works quite well. In essence, I dig this album probably more than is healthy; to any naysayers, I would suggest giving it a listen or two and seeing if it doesn't grow on you. It's definitely worth it, especially if you were expecting a repeat of their first two records. Or even if you hated their first two records. I would definitely buy it again. And again. And again, if necessary. My one biggest complaint is that it's not longer.