Franz Ferdinand has always been a strong act combining a garage-pop sensibility, chunky riffs and slick tunes. They pulled off two excellent discs, 2004’s self-titled debut and 2005’s follow-up You Could Have It So Much Better. Good as they are, the Scottish quartet is smart enough to know that a directional shift is now required, or else it would be a quick route to the garage-band dumpster of music history.
With contemporaries Cut Copy and The Killers going the dance route (the former has always had dance leanings; the latter’s new disc Day and Age was produced by electro/dance mastermind Stuart Price) perhaps it was inevitable that Franz would do the same. The band has just released its very long-awaited third album, Tonight. Though the group always leaned to the rock side of the dance/rock divide, producer Dan Carey (Kylie Minogue, CSS, Lily Allen, Hot Chip) has provided Franz Ferdinand with a vital sonic update, blurring the lines and adding a slinky electro groove, something very obvious from the first listen.
First single “Ulysses” is a grower. Synthesizers squelch as guitars churn and lead vocalist Alex Kapranos chants, “Well I found a new way/ I found a new way/ C’mon doll and use me/ I don’t need your sympathy.” On “No You Girls” the track opens with a beat very reminiscent of Taco’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” — very strange. For anyone who felt Franz Ferdinand was always too retro, Tonight won’t change any minds. The lads have one foot in the ’80s and one in the now. “Lucid Dreams,” one of the disc’s highlights, sums up the album perfectly. Beginning as a rock song but gradually transitioning into a Daft Punk-esque electro jam, it’s the boldest track on Tonight and a clear indication that the group is more than comfortable messing with its sound, pushing things in new directions and having fun. I think they’ve been listening to James Murphy’s DFA; there’s no other explanation.
Producer Dan Carey has done a superb job of sprinkling the tracks with new-wavey electronics; not enough to fundamentally change the sound of the group, but just enough to glam them up a bit. Is this necessary? Yes. And thank God it works. Carey was so into the project that he even made a dub version of songs from Tonight — drawing on his work with Lee ‘‘Scratch’’ Perry, Mad Professor and dub legends Sly and Robbie. Released as Blood, it’s a companion of sorts to Tonight, as a limited-edition bonus disc.
“If I want to hear this album, I’ll listen to the dub version,” Kapranos told the press. “It’s so exciting.” The gap between 2005’s You Could Have It So Much Better and Tonight is a vast one, especially for a newish group still trying to carve its place in the canon of popular music. The first, aborted attempt at what would become Tonight was at the hands of Brian Higgins and his über-pop Xeno-mania production crew; apparently it may have been too pop. ‘‘Some stuff survived but I don’t think it’ll ever see the light of day,” said Kapranos. “Or maybe it should be released in 30 years — like Brian Wilson’s Smile — when we’ve had 30 years to wear down our principles and cash in on it. And I hate to puncture the myth around these Xenomania sessions, but the stuff wasn’t that exciting. It was fun, but it just didn’t work out.” Guitarist Nick McCarthy added, “We write our own music. They weren’t used to that.” Those early sessions were trashed and the task was begun anew, probably accounting for the long wait. Happily, it was worth it. Tonight is a solid third outing from one of the best bands of the zero-zeroes.