Album of the week: FFS: FFS
Star rating: ****
Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, together at last. The arch dukes of indie swagger and the veteran pop satirists with a shared natural talent for a tuneful hook and a leftfield lyric – why did nobody think of this perfect pairing sooner?
Actually, Sparks cottoned on to the potential for partnership the moment they heard Take Me Out ten years ago, even wooing Franz with a little ditty called Piss Off at the time. But it was only when the two groups began swapping musical ideas across the Atlantic two years ago that their collaboration took shape and one entity, the irreverently named FFS, emerged.
The two feeder groups are so well suited musically and aesthetically that the seamless dovetailing of their sounds on this self-titled debut is achieved without either party having to compromise their character.
It feels fated that the collision of such strong pop stylists would result in Johnny Delusional, an insanely catchy electro pop portrait of unrequited love, which intermingles the disco flourish of Sparks, the Franz facility for a false finish and spoken word interlude and the dark, droll humour of both bands.
Vocally, Alex Kapranos’ dramatic drawl fits well with Russell Mael’s semi-operatic swoop. The pair are still making heartfelt pleas to be noticed on the classy Call Girl, a sleek synth pop come-on concerning the time-honoured subject of romantic radio silence. The contrast between upbeat music and downcast lyrics continues through the chiming new wave danceability of Save Me From Myself.
There’s also a strong streak of social and political satire running through the album. The urgent, slightly demented tone and offbeat commentary of Dictator’s Son has the Sparks stamp all over it. The twisted torch song Little Guy from the Suburbs is a moody companion piece with Mael’s haunting harmonies embellishing the pathos.
The melodramatic, somewhat malevolent cabaret of The Power Couple skewers the social order at dinner parties, while the hectic curtain-twitching of Police Encounters is another entertaining conflation of musical minds.
Elsewhere, we are introduced to the enigmatic J-pop heroine of So Desu Ne and the sinister stranger danger of The Man Without A Tan. “Our rugged handsomeness is no match for the man without a tan,” laments Kapranos over a typically swaggering fuzzed-up Franz guitar riff.
FFS is overall a chipper, pithy introduction to what could be a long and happy marriage. But there is one exception which disproves its own rule. The devastating critique/cheeky send-up of the whole FFS enterprise that is the mighty Collaborations Don’t Work is a multi-part rock opera which revels in mock baroque ostentation for just under seven minutes, before the newest gang in town send us packing with the exultant two finger salute of Piss Off, that impudent ditty which Sparks wrote for Franz shortly after their first meeting. How could they – and we – resist?
Leftfield: Alternative Light Source
Star rating: ***
Respected progressive house outfit Leftfield, now helmed solely by Neil Barnes, can’t hope to capture the zeitgeist again as they did with the monumental Leftism in the mid-90s but, despite the braying presence of Sleaford Mods on one track, their first album in 16 years is a classy beast.
The steely techno focus of Little Fish and the epic bass judder of Storm’s End should bring the house down live, while the slightly unsettling calm of Dark Matters makes for meditative mood music. Alternative Light Source mainly eschews fashion but the snoozy Levitate for You is too minimal hipster electro for its own good.
Admiral Fallow: Tiny Rewards
Star rating: ***
As Easy As Breathing, the opening track on Admiral Fallow’s third album, is the best of Tiny Rewards in microcosm – dynamic, epic without being pompous, and exuding a self-possessed Celtic soul. Evangeline bears comparison with the likes of Elbow for the unshowy way it conveys the listener on a journey and hits an aching emotional nerve.
The rest of the album doesn’t quite maintain that early standard-setting and the band’s decision to begin the writing process by arranging the instrumental tracks rather than leading on a song starts to tell somewhat.
The Sixteen: Palestrina (Vol 6)
Star rating: *****
Harry Christophers’ ace vocal ensemble The Sixteen is in tip-top form on this latest release in its ongoing exploration of Palestrina. This one is especially upbeat, in that the gloriously inventive settings of the Song of Songs (Nos 16-18) are in themselves fresh, free-spirited and exhilarating, as is Palestrina’s Missa L’homme arme, which treats the popular old L’homme arme tune with the gritty spirit it deserves, wrapped in the blissful, seamless polyphony that is Palestrina’s trademark. Add to that the distinctive colourings of Christophers’ hand-picked singers, and the supreme details of texture, blend and expression of their performances, and the result is trusty old Palestrina with a brilliant new lease of life.
THE POOZIES: INTO THE WELL
Star rating: ***
Delicately rippling strains of harp, accordion and fiddle open this latest album from all-female band The Poozies, now scaled down to a quartet of founder-members Mary McMaster on harp and Sally Barker on guitar and lead vocals, with fiddler Eilidh Shaw and accordionist Mairearad Green.
Characteristically vivacious instrumentals see harp, fiddle and accordion dancing nicely together in sets such as a pairing of former member Karen Tweed’s Only Viveka and Shaw’s Howie Came Unglued. Song-wise its something of a patchwork of styles, with Barker’s richly toned vocals delivering the haunting Southern Cross, about a Second World War “pirate ship”, the country-ish confessional of Three Chords and the Truth, and the up-tempo yet chillingly accusatory Ghost Girl, while McMaster sings Gaelic puirt-a-beul over pulsating electro-harp on Chuirinn and the perky regret of Small Things in the Cupboards.
Particularly striking is Green’s stately air, Achiltibuie, with its pibroch-like harp chimes and deep accordion drone working into a majestic swell of melody and wordless vocals.
The Bad Plus: The Bad Plus Joshua Redman
Star rating: ****
It’s almost two years since The Bad Plus visited Edinburgh for a memorable concert with saxophonist Joshua Redman, and if this recording makes slightly less of an impact than the live show, it remains well worth the wait. Although a major name, Redman faced a considerable challenge in fitting into the trio’s intense and highly individual musical orbit, but does so with the poise, commitment and assurance that he brings to his own work, even – or perhaps especially – where the compositions take him out of his comfort zone. Pianist Ethan Iversen, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King bring their usual creativity and energy to bear on their typically idiosyncratic take on jazz and rock. All four players contribute strong compositions, culminating in an epic reading of Anderson’s Silence Is The Question.