At the beginning of Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster's collection of highlights from WFMU's The Best Show, New Hope for the Ape-Eared, radio host Scharpling gets a phone call from Corey Harris, singer for Mother 13. Harris explains that Mother 13 is about to be huge; the band's playing an endless string of corporate-sponsored civic events and radio-station shows in support of its major-label debut. "We're five guys in our mid-20s--we grew up on everything, basically," he says. "We're like a cross between Zeppelin, the Clash, the Who, Nirvana and R.E.M." Then he plays one of their songs for Scharpling over the phone, and of course, they're not--they're just another shitty alt-rock band, an eighth-generation Train ripoff. It's instantly clear that Mother 13 is doomed, but Harris doesn't understand why he's not going to be a star--he's done everything by the book!
Naturally, the whole thing is a fake. Harris is played by Scharpling's foil, Wurster (the drummer from Chapel Hill's Superchunk). But let's imagine that Mother 13 is a real band and think for a moment about what its essential problem is: what's wrong with what the members of this band want and how they've gone about attaining it. They're entirely focused on what they want to get (laid, then famous, then rich); they haven't thought at all about what they can give an audience.
Which brings us to a real-world presumptive New Big Thing: Franz Ferdinand, a quartet from Glasgow whose second single ("Take Me Out") and self-titled debut album both instantly went Top 10 in the U.K. The band's album came out here last week (on Domino); the next day, it was announced that it had signed a gigantic contract with Epic Records. The foursome had played their first show less than two years ago (in a friend's bedroom) and their first American show in November. (They'll be making their Portland debut Monday at Berbati's Pan.)
Franz Ferdinand's frontman, Alex Kapranos, mentions at every opportunity that the original idea of the band was to make "music for girls to dance to." It's a great line, if a little worn out from overuse: Everything about them is reverse-engineered from that goal. The album is generous; Kapranos and bandmates Bob Hardy, Nick McCarthy and Paul Thomson don't want to waste the girls' time. They sweeten their rockophile riffs with discophile rhythms, making more of octave-leaping bass and k-sshunk k-sshunk drums than any non-joke guitar band since early Duran Duran. And they let the girls watch the boys dancing with the boys--"sticky hair, sticky hips, stubble on my sticky lips," Kapranos purrs in "Michael."
Franz Ferdinand is a very smart album, and a very concise album. The concision is for the sake of fun (nobody wants to dance to a flabby song); the smartness knows how to disguise itself as dumbness when that serves its ends. "Tell Her Tonight," set to a chikka-chikka guitar groove, has a cheerfully dopey lyric: "Gonna hafta tella, ah-tella to-NIGHT-chyeah," Kapranos chants, contorting his voice as if he were Sweet's Brian Connolly singing "Ballroom Blitz," while the rest of the band chirps behind him in falsetto. But every so often, he shows off with language. "The Dark of the Matinee," punctuated by a guitar line straight out of "Hava Nagila," concerns a collegiate seduction, and Kapranos' words pivot deftly around a few sounds: "Find me and follow me/ Through corridors, refectories and files/ You must follow, leave/ This academic factory." Has anyone ever used "refectory" in a pop song before?
The centerpiece of Franz Ferdinand is "Take Me Out," which starts with a minute of very good fake Strokes--Kapranos even sings a bit like Julian Casablancas. (He's not shy about imitating his favorite singers; his old band the Karelia's sole album was produced by Bid from British cult heroes the Monochrome Set, and his voice is often uncannily close to Bid's.) Then, abruptly, the tempo downshifts. The beat jumps, stabs, readjusts itself, stiffens into funky-robot disco--and suddenly "Take Me Out" has become a very different, better song. It's a crowd-goes-crazy moment, but also a sly gesture: a suggestion that they can always do better.
That's the crucial difference between Franz Ferdinand and, say, Mother 13 (aside from trivialities like talent, good songs and actual existence). When Kapranos sings about appearing on a talk show to describe how he "made it," he adds, "What I made is unclear now." The machinery of the business is lined up behind them, as it lines up behind the worthy and the unworthy. But these guys don't play like they're looking at the stars: they play like they know they have to prove themselves again every time a girl approaches the dance floor.
Franz Ferdinand plays Monday, March 22, at Berbati's Pan, 231 SW Ankeny St., 248-4579. 9:30 pm. Cover. 21+.