Bring in the lads

Modern rockers Franz Ferdinand came along with the right music at the right time, when the people were ready to heed their inferred call to stop blubbering and start dancing.

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

The summer of 2004 held a definitive moment for Franz Ferdinand and their brand of dance-rock (or punk-dance, alt-rock, post-'80s, neo-prog or whatever-the-hell music). However you want to define it, the Scottish imports were leading the pack. They not only exploded onto the scene in the United Kingdom, but they also washed up on the shores of the United States and, by doing so, capsized all preexisting notions of 21st century pop-rock.

Even if you didn’t know Franz Ferdinand then, you probably already knew their music: The band’s massive hit single, “Take Me Out,” saturated television airwaves as the most popular iPod commercial that didn’t feature Bono of U2. A bit of the Pixies and a dash of the Clash, “Take Me Out” was a requisite selection on critics’ 2004 top-10 lists. It made its way up to number three on Billboard’s modern-rock singles chart, and, for a while there, was an unofficial anthem of most college dormitories. It was a song that satisfied both music Nazis and undergraduate ass-shakers, and it put the four lads from Glasgow on the map.

Next Friday, March 24, the band will stop in Reno on their North American tour in support of You Could Have It So Much Better, their October 2005 sophomore effort. The eclectic bill includes Seattle emo-rock outfit Death Cab for Cutie (headed by Ben Gibbard of the Postal Service) and United Kingdom punk-folk rockers the Cribs. The lineup is somewhat of an anomaly; having West Coast emo rockers and British punkers on the same stage is not your usual high-profile concert fare. Nevertheless, the show is an exciting prospect for music listeners with a hunger for diverse, alternative-rock sounds.

In addition to “Take Me Out,” their self-titled first album produced two more singles (including another hit, “The Dark of the Matinee") and is considered one of the best alternative-rock albums so far this decade. The boys hadn’t reinvented the wheel or anything, but there was something about their raw guitar-drum syncopation and he-said-she-said lyrics that captured the right vibe at the precise moment. Perhaps rock fans were burned out on the malaise of Brit imports like Radiohead, Pulp and Coldplay. Or maybe, in a post-9/11 sense, people had enough of rock-god wallowing and wanted to wear their rock ‘n’ roll on their sleeves—to stop posturing and just dance.

Regardless, dance-rock became the bandwagon itself, and fans couldn’t get enough of Franz Ferdinand and their contemporaries. With their success, Franz Ferdinand solidified dance-rock’s resurrection in the world of pop music. The genre already had been making its way back into the vernacular of club-goers and indie-music aficionados, but it had yet to achieve the stature and awareness of predecessors like the Talking Heads or Blondie.

Retrofitted dance-rock
Back in 2001, when Franz Ferdinand was just an idea being tossed around by four friends in a Glasgow kitchen, bands like Rapture, the Liars and, before them, Interpol, Blur and Suede began to experiment with new-wave pop sounds. Now, along with Franz Ferdinand, fellow limeys such as Bloc Party and Hot Chip, Norway’s Datarock and even !!! of California (on the British Warp label) have found success by toying around with pop, dance and rock sensibilities. Sure, two-bit and, in retrospect, kitschy dance-rock of the 20th century seemed a thing of the past, but Franz Ferdinand’s interest in high-energy drums and epic guitar hooks reinvigorated the genre and took it into the mainstream.

The bio on Franz Ferdinand’s official Web site states that the foursome “liked the idea of music for girls to dance to.” But what makes their songs stand out is how unexpectedly they transition from one rhythm to the next. This is especially evident on Franz Ferdinand. The album’s opening track, “Jacqueline,” eases into things with a soft, folk melody, but it isn’t long before the band’s trademark incendiary guitars start cutting up the supple arrangement into a very Clash-like eruption of dance-rock goodness. Five songs later, the album still doesn’t let up.

On their latest, the band experiments with a more sophisticated rock sound but doesn’t altogether abandon the framework laid out on the rookie effort. This is not to say that Franz simply is rehashing past successes. Take, for example, the track “Walk Away.” The song is a more refined, mature version of Franz Ferdinand’s “Tell Her Tonight” but with a more confident sense of melody and vocalization. To that effect, even though the new album places a stronger emphasis on rock than dance, the distinctively catchy riffs have not been swept under the proverbial rug. (Just listen to the post-chorus bridge on “Eleanor Put Your Boots Back On"—a song singer Alexander Kapranos wrote about his girlfriend—or the intro to the opener “The Fallen.")

The band admits that before recording their first album, they’d only played some 30 shows together; by the time they got around to You Could Have It So Much Better, they’d played more than 300. Consequently, their style evolved from being rough-around-the-edges, up-tempo guitar rock to a stronger amalgam of each band member’s influence. The result is modern dance-rock for the digital-savvy music consumer.