FFS: FFS review – Franz Ferdinand and Sparks take ridiculously entertaining off-road adventure

The Scottish rockers hitch a ride with the Mael brothers for a collaborative album that is far more than a conceptual gag

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. It starts out detailing all the potential pitfalls in a musical partnership – misunderstandings and missed deadlines, the possibility that one artist might cop off with another’s partner, as indeed Sparks’ Ron Mael did when Todd Rundgren produced their debut album – and ends up with Russell Mael and Alex Kapranos shrieking imprecations at each other: “I don’t like your navel gazing!” “I don’t get your way of phrasing!” “I am a bastard! Independent! And if I ever need a father, it won’t be you, old man,” Kapranos finally bellows at Mael, who is 26 years his senior.

Collaborations Don’t Work is funny, clever and richly, ridiculously entertaining, a grand musical refutation of its title, but there’s no mistaking an itchy unease behind the conceptual gag, especially given that it was the first song the two bands had worked on together. On paper, FFS looks not unlike Elton John and Leon Russell’s The Union, a high-profile artist munificently extending a hand to a formative influence who long ago slipped into cult status. But it’s nowhere near as straightforward as that. Since they first arrived in the public consciousness in 1974 – “Dad! Dad! Come in here! Hitler’s playing the piano on Top of the Pops!” – Sparks have given every impression of existing in a hermetically sealed world, entirely of their own creation. The Mael brothers fetched up in glam-era Britain, clearly lured across the Atlantic by the news that weirdos were selling a lot of records over here. The all-bets-are-off, post-Ziggy age was one of few moments in pop history when a man singing complicated lyrics in a soaring falsetto while his brother stared disconcertingly at the camera from above a moustache that today would be called “problematic” might pass for top 10 material. But Sparks never quite fitted with glam rock: even in the all-bets-are-off post-Ziggy age, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us sounded inexplicable, nothing like anything else. Over the ensuing five decades, whether they’ve turned their hand to mock classical music or Giorgio Moroder-produced Euro disco, Sparks have somehow always sounded exactly like Sparks. That’s obviously the key to their longevity and their rabid cult following, but it presents a problem for Franz Ferdinand. how does another band insinuate their way into a private world?

Watch Collaborations Don’t Work by FFS – video

On FFS, they spend 45 minutes trying every way they can. Johnny Delusional and Call Girl sound like Franz Ferdinand songs slightly retooled to accommodate Russell Mael’s voice, Ron Mael’s keyboards and something of Sparks’ arch lyrical presence (“I gave up blow and Adderrall for you,” complains the latter). They work, not least because they’re among the best pop songs Franz Ferdinand have written in years. It’s as if the presence of a band whose music looms large over their own – the first song Franz Ferdinand attempted to play was a cover of Sparks’ Achoo – has put them on their mettle. Less successful are tracks where they attempt to match the Maels’ in-built weirdness, Kapranos amping up the mannerisms in his vocals until they’re in the same vague region as Russell Mael’s knowing scenery chewing. That leads to the tinny clatter of Police Encounter and The Man Without a Tan: diverting enough, but the sound of quite so many people arching their eyebrows and putting inverted commas around everything gets fatiguing. On Save Me from Myself they appear to have exhausted themselves and are reconciled to playing a supporting role, providing a walloping backbeat and guitars on a Sparks song.

But on the majority of FFS, the collaboration clicks perfectly, with moments where no artist appears to be in control, where something slightly different to what you’d imagine the sum of their parts would sound like comes out of the speakers. Things I Won’t Get is alternately wistful and funny, its murky, etiolated funk topped off with words that play on the double meaning of the title: unfulfilled ambitions and incomprehension. The saga of a despot’s child let loose in LA’s nightclubs and in no hurry to return home at the head of a rebel army, Dictator’s Son rages along, everything fried in a layer of crisp distortion. The Power Couple’s strange, lopsided stomp, meanwhile, perfectly complements the subject’s paranoia. They reserve the album’s loveliest melody for its darkest song, the mostly acoustic Little Guy from the Suburbs, the lyrics of which take a break from puns and archness and appear to be a self-justifying suicide note from a spree-killing gunman: “There are no heroes in this life, just those who care more for their legend than their life.”

Watch Piss Off by FFS – video

It ends with the splendidly named Piss Off, a song about gleefully withdrawing from social contact and refusing to do what others expect you to: “Tell everybody to piss off,” it urges, “they should piss off and leave you alone in your world.” That could be a motto for Sparks’ career, and indeed for FFS, an album that reaffirms Franz Ferdinand are slightly apart from their peers. You can’t imagine any of their surviving contemporaries from early noughties post-punk-inspired alt-rock taking an off-road diversion like this. It is a very scenic route, even if it’s probably a dead-end – it is hard to picture either band throwing their lot in with the other permanently. There’s more here than mere novelty appeal – enough to make you hope they repeat the experiment at some point.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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