Release Date: Jun 9, 2015
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, New Wave/Post-Punk Revival, Synth Pop, Dance-Rock
How I envy the listener who discovers Sparks through FFS, the debut album by the Franz Ferdinand-Sparks hybrid of the same name. The Mael brothers’ back catalogue is one of the richest in rock history, spanning four decades and encapsulating prog-lite weirdness, glam rock at its finest, creme de la creme disco, idiosyncratic synth pop, and monumental chamber pop. 22 albums in and it’s simply remarkable that Sparks is still doing something new, this time with some arch-pop co-conspirators in tow.
Towards the end of this debut collaboration between Franz Ferdinand and Spark there crops up a track called Collaborations Don’t Work. It’s six and a half minutes long, sounds like about four songs all being played at once, and is all about how collaborations between famous bands never work due to ego clashes. A few minutes later, the album ends with a joyous stomp and massed vocals of “Piss off, piss off, piss off!”.
A long time in the making as well as a complete surprise on its arrival, the self-titled debut from FFS -- the collaboration between Franz Ferdinand and Sparks -- is the work of two great, and distinctive, acts at the top of their game. In fact, FFS works so well because these groups aren't carbon copies of each other. Over the years, Sparks brainy shape-shifting has touched on glam and new wave, two of the styles that were most influential on Franz Ferdinand's suave dance-rock, but that's just the tip of their musical iceberg.
Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. Yes, really. ’Collaborations don’t work’ sing Alex Kapranos and Russell Mael on, er, Collaborations Don’t Work, thereby creating a vortex of irony so powerful that all rock music was sucked into it and destroyed..
Some ideas really are just punch-the-air, smack-your-forehead, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that perfect, aren’t they? Combining Glasgow’s crown princes of danceably arch pop, Franz Ferdinand, with odd-ball Seventies-and-beyond danceably arch pop progenitors Sparks is one of those ideas. In many ways the newly-formed six-piece are a really, genuinely perfect proposition. Their very existence, as a sort of McBusted for Orange Juice fans, is perfect.
The penultimate track on Sparks and Franz Ferdinand’s collaborative album is called Collaborations Don’t Work. It lasts for almost seven minutes, during which time it shifts from soft, lo-fi strum to staccato, orchestrated show tune, to overdriven rock to jazz pastiche to murkily ambient funk to mock opera to synth pulse to delicate piano coda. The music keeps changing, but the message remains the same, albeit delivered with increasing vehemence.
Sparks’ first new material in six years is in collaboration with long-term fans and fellow art-rockers Franz Ferdinand, and it’s an unexpected delight. Ten years in the planning, FFS succeeds in making both groups sound exactly how the casual fan of either one would expect. It is, in the main, succinct, hook-heavy pop, with choruses repeated within inches of their lives.
Beyond that excellently coined acronym-cum-moniker, the coming together of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks feels like a perfect match. Both are successful art rock outfits (albeit from different eras) with a penchant for the preposterous and both are widely assumed to have seen the back of their heydays. So, how better to rejuvenate their careers than a collaboration of ticklish riffs, quick-witted quips, and the occasional naughty word? .
Within two years of forming in 2002, Franz Ferdinand etched out a comfortable spot in the post-punk revival movement that lit up the pop landscape at the turn of the century. Their 2004 self-titled debut and its follow-up, You Could Have It So Much Better, showed the world how adept the suave Scots were at angular but infectious dance rock, proving to a new generation (one that missed out on XTC and Gang of Four) just how well dance pop and post-punk can get along together. The band’s next two outings, 2009’s Tonight: Franz Ferdinand and 2013’s Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, stuck to the script, opting not to try to fix something that wasn’t broken.
Franz Ferdinand and Sparks initially floated the idea of working together in 2004, following the release of the former band's first album, which went platinum, and the latter band's 19th, which didn't chart. Sparks' Ron Mael responded by sending Franz Ferdinand a demo for a song called "Piss Off". But Sparks are nothing if not ironists, and both bands are long-haulers, and at some point they finally got it together to make an album together, under a name you wouldn't guess would naturally occur to the sixty-something Mael brothers.
There’s a moment about six minutes into ‘FFS’ high-point ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’ when you can actually hear art-rock eat itself. Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos opens the track solo on an acoustic, singing “Collaborations don’t work, I’m gonna do it all by myself”. Then, after the whole thing billows into a jazz/synthpop operetta dissecting the pitfalls that characterise the average joint rock venture, Alex swaps barbed operatic swipes with Sparks’ Russell Mael (“I don’t need your patronising!/I don’t need your agonising!”) and the two bands finally come together for a gloriously unified romp through the chorus.
Well, here's a supergroup nobody would have predicted. In this corner, Sparks, the 1970s art-rock duo who drove Britannia mad back in the day with endearingly flaky albums like Kimono My House. And in that corner, Franz Ferdinand, the Scottish lads who've written a sizable chunk of the past decade's best guitar songs. Both bands share a wildly eccentric sense of melodrama, which is why the combo clicks.
Sparks’ seriously unserious output has included orchestral pop gems ‘Dick Around’, ‘How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?’ and ‘I Married Myself’ - to say nothing of their theme song for NPR program Bookworm. Franz Ferdinand have been convincing us of the power of black leather and knowing your World War One history since their 2004 self-titled debut. They also have guitars.
From their chosen acronym on in, wit abounds on this collaboration between Scots art rock outfit Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, the duo of brothers best known for their arch, pioneering synth-pop of the 70s. FFS even features a song called Collaborations Don’t Work for one. The fit between bands is seamless, though, with songs such as Dictator’s Son sounding rather like 1974 Sparks hit This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us crossed with any number of Franz Ferdinand offerings.
The only odd thing about FFS, the band made up of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, is that it took so long for the two camps to team up and collaborate. The artsy Glaswegian post-punks have always been indebted to the arch lyrics and era-agnostic songwriting of the cult Los Angeles rock duo; unsurprisingly, it turns out Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos has been a fan for decades, and his band even tried to cover Sparks’ 1974 single “Achoo” early in its existence. Even more unsurprising, the two groups apparently even initially discussed working together a decade ago.
Shortly after Franz Ferdinand released its 2004 debut, Ron and Russell Mael, the Los Angeles-based brothers who make up the pomp-pop legends Sparks, approached the Glaswegian dance punkers about collaborating. It took the better part of a decade, but “FFS” is more than worth the wait: a stylish, outsized romp that balances Franz Ferdinand’s gentlemanly muscle with Sparks’s adoration for the theatrical. Bouncing bass and twitchy synths turn “Police Encounters” into a raucous race to the finish; the storming “Save Me From Myself” is fussy and fun; and the oh-so-precise enunciation of “our rugged handsomeness” on the clamorous “The Man Without a Tan” sums up in six syllables at least as many different types of masculinity crises.
More bands should try merging for an album or two. Especially two bands that didn't seem to have any clear link prior to amalgamation, like Scottish dance-rock four-piece Franz Ferdinand and campy L.A. synth-pop brothers Sparks, who have made something like 22 albums since the early 70s. Together, they sound kind of Bowie glam, kind of ELO, but never dated.
Quite a few reviews of Run the Jewels 2 picked up on the fact that it didn’t seem quite as silly as its predecessor, and that it was likely down to the fact that Killer Mike and El-P had been covering their backs a little on the first album; if it didn’t really come off, or go down particularly well, they could just claim they were dicking about and that perhaps it wasn’t meant to be taken especially seriously. A similar hedging of bets, on the face of it at least, seems to be happening on this joint effort from Franz Ferdinand and Sparks - on top of the fact that they’ve, you know, christened themselves FFS, there’s tracks with names like “Piss Off”, “The Power Couple” and - most tellingly - “Collaborations Don’t Work. ” That last statement is largely false though, at least in this case, and as tongue-in-cheek as the presentation might seem, this is nothing like as strange a pairing as it might seem on paper.