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A glow in the dark

Franz Ferdinand can ignite a crowd with blasts of pop that demand you dance. But it's more than clever beats burning at the heart of Alex Kapranos' brainy, bittersweet tunes.

October 02, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Lawrence, Kan. — HISTORIC old Liberty Hall has gone through lots of incarnations, from the site of an abolitionist newspaper in the 1850s to an opera house at the turn of the last century. On a recent night, the theater, now home to rock concerts, was a handy lab to test the staying power of Franz Ferdinand, the Scottish quartet that charmed the pop world last year with its combination of dance-happy grooves and wry, obsessive themes.

Sure, they were hailed by many critics as the "best new British rock band of 2004," but 10 months into 2005 that doesn't mean much -- unless you've got another knockout album to keep the momentum going. Too many "can't miss" bands are falling by the wayside these days to think anything can be taken for granted. (What did happen to the Hives?)

It wouldn't take long on this weeknight for the members of Franz Ferdinand to learn if they still had the touch, and even the group's London-based manager was on hand to gauge the reaction to songs from the band's new album, "You Could Have It So Much Better," which comes out Tuesday.

The moment of truth came midway through the hour set with "Take Me Out," a song from the first album that was so irresistible that it helped the CD, "Franz Ferdinand," sell 3 million copies worldwide.

Typical of the Ferdinand mix of the sweet and bittersweet, the song is built around insanely catchy disco-punk grooves (think Pet Shop Boys meet the Buzzcocks). The story itself is far less cheery: A guy is so shattered by the breakup of a relationship that he begs his former dream girl to do him one last favor: Put him out of his misery. There's no way he can go on living without her.

By the time lead singer Alex Kapranos reached the song's chorus at Liberty Hall, the audience near the edge of the stage was bouncing like it was on a trampoline.

Which raised the question: How do you follow that?

Without stopping to catch a breath, Kapranos and the rest of the band launched their answer: "Do You Want To," the equally exuberant single from the new album.

The song's theme is at the opposite end of the pop spectrum from "Take Me Out," at least outwardly. Here, the confident hero declares, "I'm going to make somebody love me," and tells his elusive dream girl she's the "lucky, lucky" one.

Of course, it's also a fantasy, cloaking the insecurity and doubt of someone who has probably been anything but lucky in romance. But the guitar-driven music itself -- as chipper as the Beatles' "She Loves You" -- feels so good that it's easy to suspend disbelief and celebrate with him. The audience responds with another bouncing affirmation.

It's this intriguing blend of darkness and bright pop glow -- intensity without the angst -- that makes Ferdinand such a fresh pop force. Departing from the torment and anger that dominated mainstream rock in the late '90s, Kapranos loves to dust off such forgotten pop devices as irony, wit and sophistication.

"People often don't see beyond the initial euphoria of the music itself to see what is actually going on in the song," he says, "but the story itself is essential to me. I want to write about the extremes that we feel in life, but not the extremes we could imagine people going through. I mean the extremes of situations I've been in or seen other people in -- the extremes of normal lives."

He draws not only from other pop music genres, including hip-hop, but takes inspiration from challenging works in other art forms, whether it's such disturbing psychological studies as the 1963 film "The Servant" or books by Graham Greene and George Orwell.

"The Beatles were huge for me," says Kapranos, who notes that his Beatle-fan mom gave him the middle name Paul. "I used to jump around the room to the red album, the one with all the early hits on it. It made you feel euphoric. It was a sensation I couldn't get from anything else, whether it was playing football, swimming or even seeing 'Star Wars.' "

What especially intrigued Kapranos were songs, such as "Nowhere Man" and "I'm Down," in which the music was melancholy or dark, but the record still felt uplifting.

"I have always been fascinated by the concept of the villain and the hero being in one person," he said. "I love things like Blake's reinterpretation of Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' the idea that Lucifer was the good guy because he was the rebel."

Beatles? Blake? Milton? Lucifer?

No wonder Ferdinand's music sounds so interesting.

An explorer blends in

kAPRANOS looks so much like a student as he peddles his bike along the downtown sidewalks in his preppy red shirt and black pants that no one appears to give him a second glance -- not even the couple entering Liberty Hall hoping to score tickets to the band's performance that night.

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