[Author’s Note: This is part two in a three-part series of updates for the year. I will try harder in the future.]
Franz Ferdinand, Tonight Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand seem to have conceived their third album with the express intent of annoying people, and, judging by their dwindling sales, I suppose they’ve succeeded. I’m mildly amused by their bravado, and I’m not particularly annoyed or surprised: Franz Ferdinand has the potential to be a career band, but it would be hard work, and they seem to feel like they’ve already made enough money (which I’m sure is true) to just do whatever they feel like doing. (I’m sure Alex Kapranos will turn out to be as good a food writer as he seems to want to be if he keeps at it.) I enjoy listening to Tonight if I’m thinking about it (it’s fun to try to figure out the intended function of each song), but it’s not particularly catchy and doesn’t really stick. Their first album sounded good, but their second album showed two rhythm guitars are proportionately better than one, and that they had honed their rhythms to a ridiculously precise level; they even released a new version of “This Fire” that made a big deal out of shaving off 35 seconds from the original running time. This is more a step sideways than anything, a deliberate avoidance of seeing how much further they could take their sound. Nothing makes this clearer than the inexplicable closing 2-1/2 minutes of “Lucid Dreams,” pitched ineffectually midway between Justice and Nine Inch Nails. The drums still swagger on off-beats, but the rest of the band seems narcotized; they’ve deliberately slowed themselves down. It’s a curious way to fail. The best track is “Live Alone,” because FF is very good at rhythmically-reinforced misanthropy: “I’m in love with you/Wanna stay in love with you/So I’m gonna live alone,” all to a four-on-the-floor disco beat. I doubt they’ll snap out of it enough to pull off a stomping fourth album, but they’re obviously uncomfortable with how fashionable their Talking Heads et al. appropriations have become, and it’s hard to blame them. Trying to find a new path of their own may be impossible.
Canadian Invasion, Three Cheers for the Invisible Hand: Canadian Invasion (from Philadelphia, naturally) instantly attracted my attention with the lead single from this, their first album to try for national attention. The song is the beautifully titled “Standing On The Shoulders Of The Carcass Of John Mayer,” and it does not disappoint. It begins with the narrator “sneaking up like a green beret” to Mr. Mayer at the grocery store and making short work of him; the sociopathic instincts are reinforced with a reference to “Fire walk with me.” But our killer—an unlikeable sort in high school, where “down the hallways I’d mutter”—has god on his side, because he likes to read Hegel and Nietzsche. This character sketch of the high school intellectual as unreconstructed, self-loathing douchebag will ring instantly true if you’ve been there, and the song is catchy as can be. Canadian Invasion claim Wilco and The Lemonheads as primary influences, which means they’re easy to despise; this kind of lazy, jangly indie pop is basically the MOR of Pitchfork-oriented fare, and I understand how alarming it would’ve been if college rock had decided music would progress no further than The Lemonheads. Nonetheless: Canadian Invasion’s mixture of depressed lyrics and upbeat tunes, while by no means surprising, is frequently inspired. When they’re not being boring (which is hard when you’re aiming for the kind of music that requires more craft than energy), they’re quite good: in addition to the aforementioned single, there’s the Fountains of Wayne-ish “How To Build A Jetpack,” which pays tribute to all the other drunks walking home alone from the bar; “The Last Time I Went To Church,” a nervous agnostic ballad whose chorus appropriately strives away from total fiery indignation; an out-of-nowhere ’80s soft-rock sax solo on “But You’re God (And I’m Me).” Also the title track, which sounds unexceptional but is pretty dead-on, combining the aforementioned FoW jangle with the despair of the Wrens (the twin saints of depressed tri-state rock). You know this story from the outset, but it’s nice to hear it told with detail: “Me and my girlfriend, we’re 17 now/We might get married, though I’m not sure quite why.” Flash-forward: “30 years later a midlife crisis, in my Ferrari, wave at the girls who walk by.” The rest of the songs are kind of take-it-or-leave-it, but yeah: I’m basically simpatico with these guys, even when they’re kinda boring.
Junior Boys, Begone Dull Care: Junior Boys quantum-leaped from the monochromatic boredom of debut Last Exit (seriously, I don’t get it) to the super-awesome So This Is Goodbye, in which they discovered both harmony and how to introduce new developments into a song halfway through rather than sticking torturously to the game plan established in the first thirty seconds. Begone Dull Care (which bears almost no discernible relation to the Norman McLaren short of the same name, although there’s a song called “The Animator”) is less synth-pop songs than dance jams, with the emphasis on rhythmic work-outs. The album is basically workmanlike, more focused on incidentals than the overall picture; it’ll serve its purpose, but I hate dancing. I do, however, adore “The Animator,” which is lyrically beyond emo (“I can’t draw a line without it falling off the page”) and musically lush; it’s entirely subjective, of course, but it sounds forgiving, resignedly cathartic and generally worthy of The Notwist. I’m curious where they’ll go next.
Neko Case, Middle Cyclone: Having emerged from sonic murk to the relative cleanliness of 2006’s excellent Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (her lyrical obliqueness obviously intact), Neko damn near goes jangle. “This Tornado Loves You” is first on the album and in my heart; Case’s greatest asset as a songwriter is the overwhelming gravitas she can bring both vocally and lyrically, and her backing band (including the simpatico Howe Gelb) is ridiculously powerful. But “This Tornado Loves You” is surprisingly light and fleet, anchored by a racing guitar line that picks its way around the melody, banjo-style; it brings Case surprisingly close to Aztec Camera. As usual, there’s animal imagery all over the place, and it’s refreshing how little Case cares for metaphorical implications: if she wants to sing from the point of view of a tornado or remind you how dangerous whales are in surprisingly gory detail, she’ll do it in a way that makes her seem more pagan than interested in stretching the imagery out or proselytizing for PETA. In fact, it’s become clear that Case’s pin-up looks have covered, for a long time, exactly how weird she is. Her explanation of how “This Tornado Loves You” came about is worthy of David Lynch: “I had a good dream where I met a tornado at a rest stop on the side of the highway, and he wanted me to read him a book. He was frustrated. I was watching him as he was trying to figure out how to talk to a person instead of another tornado, and I was watching him figure it out. Finally he said—he didn’t say it, I couldn’t hear him say it, but I knew what he wanted— “could you please read me this book? I can’t turn the pages! I can’t read it! So will you please read it to me?” So I took the book, and then I woke up.”
The great thing about Case is that, unlike anyone else in the nebulous category of “indie rock,” she’s the only one who could be a champion on American Idol; she can really belt it out, and she’s got force and range (watch her Letterman appearance, where she stands bolt upright in a dress and sings straight on; unlike a lot of indie rock players, she’s counting entirely upon her voice rather than any kind of stage persona). Instead of making the easy money, though, she chooses to write songs like the five-and-a-half-minute epic “Prison Girls,” essentially a long dirge with pizzicato strings and ominous minor keys where the only real hook is Case’s strong melodic line. Middle Cyclone is a bit saggy (Fox Confessor is more admirably compact), but it can be ridiculously impressive and overpowering. She also covers Sparks, and that’s the way to my heart.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.