FFS - 'FFS' - 2015 Album Review

‘FFS’ by FFS – Not some kind of monster

Sparks have been going since 1971, Franz Ferdinand surfaced in 2001. Sparks have twenty-two albums under their belt. Franz Ferdinand reached five. Sparks is a duo. Franz Ferdinand is a quartet. And the six of them now form one band, FFS, which just launched a captivating eponymous debut album.

The Franz-Sparks alliance dates back to 2004, when Ferdinand was dominating the airwaves with Take Me Out. The Mael brothers thought it was a cool song and wanted to meet the Glaswegians in their hometown LA. A demo for the song Piss Off stems from that period, but didn’t come to fruition back then. So there it lay … an auspicious ditty, gathering dust. Until the guys bumped into each other in downtown San Francisco.

Franz Ferdinand - Take Me Out

“Take us out, Ron and Russell!” – Franz Ferdinand

Born out of that lucky encounter, ‘FFS’ sounds equally spontaneous. Which is a small miracle, given the fact that it must be extremely hard to drag two seasoned bands away from their routines. The danger of creating some kind of monster is real. Especially when – the initial romance waned – both bands realize that this town ain’t big enough after all.

Dramatic falsetto vs. deadpan delivery

Collaborations Don’t Work – an update of Bohemian Rhapsody? – speaks volumes: sooner or later mutual respect will make way for frustration and envy. A fear brilliantly transmitted by the quarrelling between Russell Mael (S) and Alex Kapranos (FF):

S: I don’t need your patronizing
FF: I don’t need your agonizing
S: I don’t need your navelgazing
FF: I don’t get your way or phrasing

Rest assured: Sparks and Franz Ferdinand did not fall into that trap. Both sporting a very distinctive style, they give each other plenty of room to move and breathe. Indeed, what’s making the FFS sound so potent, is the clash of musical contrasts: Ron Mael’s dramatic piano gestures and orchestral leanings against Franz Ferdinand’s guitar crunch, his brother Russell’s falsetto against Kapranos’ deadpan vocal delivery.

Transatlantic humour

Dictator’s Son sees Ron and Russell hopping over a light melody, while heavy guitars vainly try to tone them down. An abundance of great, subtly incorporated ideas aside, most songs are pretty straightforward. Glued together by transatlantic humour and a mildly sardonic tone – what else did you expect?

Sparks - 'Kimono My House' (1974)

“Kimono our house, Franz” – Sparks

Call Girl revolves around wordplay, while Police Encounters hysterically revolves around the wife of a police officer. The Man Without A Tan is about the threat imposed by an all too popular new kid in town, and Piss Off is a Pythonesque way of saying goodbye.

A nod and a wink

To thicken the intellectually amusing ambience, FFS indulges in clever winks to popular culture and auto-reference. For instance on the Japanese-titled So Desu Ne, which mentions both Hello Kitty and ‘kimono’ – a clear nod to Sparks’ 1974 breakthrough album ‘Kimono My House’ (1974). Indeed, the one that made a lasting impression on a teenage Morrissey.

Driven by tiresome cadences, Save Me From Myself and The Power Couple are slightly less memorable. But overall, ‘FFS’ is a surprisingly coherent album. Hopefully inspiring more bands to put their heads together.

Eureka - The Explorer's Guide to Discovering MusicEureka - The Explorer's Guide to Discovering Music

Eureka! The Explorer’s Guide to Discovering Music

Discovering new music is one of the great thrills in life. I know I won’t stumble upon a ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or ‘Skylarking’ every day. But I’m always either fixing holes in my record collection or reaching out my antennae to find gripping melodies, off-kilter sounds and downright musical iconoclasm.

Some sixty years ago, you needed a traveller’s mind, a portable tape recorder and preferably Lomax for a last name. Today, you can become a music explorer operating from the toilet! Well, most of the time.

Guiding light

I’m not referring to more haphazard ways of discovering music, like sitting by the radio and wait endlessly for a refreshing tune, or randomly picking songs on Spotify. No, you better have a guiding light, some guarantee that you’re at least looking in the right directions.

The following tips reveal how I’m unearthing music. Now and in the future. Use what you like and do let me know what you discover!

Never a dull moment!

1. Dive into your parents’ or uncle’s record stash. Ask what they grooved to when they were young. And join them on a trip down their memory lane. Chances are you’ll find more obscure titles than ‘Rumours’ or ‘The Joshua Tree’.

In fact, this is how I experienced my big bang. At the age of 9, I played my uncle’s copy of Queen’s ‘Greatest Hits’. Things expanded from there.

2. Flip through a music or genre book or encyclopaedia. ‘The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings’, ‘The Great Rock/Metal/Psychedelic Discography’ by Martin C. Strong, ‘The Rough Guide to the Best Music You’ve Never Heard’, ‘Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music’ by Rob Young, Allmusic.com, …

And check out the editorial picks and the albums behind the stories. Fascinating stuff!

3. Shake the Twitter tree by searching for particular hastags like #psychsoul or #nowspinning (almost exclusively used by vinyl enthusiasts). Whatever niche you like. Did you encounter accounts that regularly share reviews or recommendations? Set up a Twitter list of music sources. That way, you’ll keep the milk of paradise flowing …

Next step: use TweetDeck to create your own music discovery dashboard, with colums for each of your lists and keyword/hashtag searches.

4. Get the most out of Spotify (or Deezer). The platform is loaded with excellent playlists, compiled by users. Just feed the search bar with keywords like ‘mellotron’ or ‘new york punk’ and put your headhones on. Also, try the Discover function. The more you listen, the more accurate the suggestions you get.

And are your friends notorious for their great taste in music? Keep an eye on the right sidebar to get inspired by what they’re listening to.

5. Start a conversation with the record store clerk. Come on, don’t be shy! I understand it’s tempting to just get your records, and get out. But these guys are surrounded by new and reissued music 24/7. So use their knowledge, tell them what kind of records you’re looking for and rush home to discover the gems you bought.

6. Read music blogs and magazines. Hype Machine keeps a list of over 800 handpicked blogs. Me? I like old school magazines like Mojo and Uncut. Because they have it all: great pictures, expertly written, evocative reviews of albums and reissues, in-depth pieces on new and old bands by seasoned journalists, an excellent cd with each issue and … a crossword puzzle.

7. Exchange mixtapes. One of the greatest aspects of any friendship is to discuss music, to meet at the front row for a concert, and to recommend albums. Does that mean you should have your notebook ready every time you go out for a drink? Well, why not?

Better still, ask your friends to put their latest favourite tunes on a cassette, CD-r, MiniDisk, … Before long, you’ll even know the running order by heart and you’ll be tracking down some of the original albums.

Also consider this nerdy alternative: invite your music buddies for a music night, to introduce and share songs that the others musn’t miss. Usually an inebriated affair, I picked up a lot from every single one of the so-called Deurne Sessions!

8. Find out what your favourite musicians are spinning. Sneak into their apartment? That’s one option, but not the one I would suggest. Instead, check if they have a listening now-list going on their website, or a playlist covering their influences on Spotify. In my experience, a lot musicians have a taste that stretches far beyond the style they’re known for themselves. And lots of interviews are sheer name-dropping feasts. Harvest time!

The most epic example of an artist playlist is surely Dan Snaith’s (aka Caribou) Longest Mixtape – 1000 Song for You.

9. Go where other music explorers go. On Last.fm or Discogs, on RateYourMusic or Progarchives, … On all of these platforms you’ll find countless discussions and/or personal lists. Moreover, Last.fm keeps track of what over 58 million users listen to on their computers or mobile devices. Find people with an interesting taste and enjoy their discoveries!

On the artist side of things, a lot is happening on Soundcloud and Bandcamp.

10. Dig into musician’s collaborations. If you’d bring together the discographies of everyone who ever played with Miles Davis, you’d have thousands of hours worth of excellent music: by Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, John Scofield, John McLaughlin, Bill Evans, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarret, … Of course, Miles is an extreme example. But you get the picture.

11. Follow records labels very closely. They usually have a very clear concept. Some focus on a certain genre, others only hire bands that bring a unique expertimental voice to the table. If a certain label delivers the goods for you, it will probably continue to do so in the future.

Don’t know where to start? Just look for the label’s logo on the back of your favourite albums, and browse their discography online. Or try it the other way around: Wikipedia has an impressive list of record labels.

Interestingly, there are labels specifically oriented towards uncovering and reissuing burried treasures. Light In The Attic Records, obviously. Their catalog is simply mindblowing. Some personal highlights: ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ by Michael Chapman (1970), ‘Dreamin’ by Donnie & Joe Emerson (1979), ‘L’Amour’ by the elusive Lewis Baloue (1983) and ‘Songs from Suicide Bridge’ by David Kauffmann and Eric Caboor (1984).


Now it’s time to get out there and discover new music. Do let me know what you’ve found. I want to hear it too!

‘Juggernaut’ by zZz – Dealing exzZzitement!

For a decade now, zZz has been building excitement in home country Holland, and far beyond. Their third LP is a self-proclaimed ‘Juggernaut’. An apt title, especially if you flip to side two.

Playing just keys and drums, zZz is quite an usual sight: Daan Schinkel pounding away on his organ and synths, and Bjorn Ottenheim keeping a sturdy beat and singing fuzzed-out lines. Recorded on a converted houseboat and launched in 2005, debut album ‘The Sound of zZz’ contained one of my favourite Dutch rock songs … ever: Lucy.

Not in it for a Pulitzer

Let’s cut to the chase: if you’re into deep or poetic lyrics, ‘Juggernaut’ is not for you. But it’s clear zZz is not after a Pulitzer Prize. They deal excitement. They want your heart to bounce out of your chest and your eardrums to keep trembling when the music’s over.

zZz’s style may be wild, but it’s not flat. Which is largely down to Schinkel’s swirling keyboards.

Hawkwind! Punk! Krautrock!

The first thing that hits me on album-opening track Blood, is Ottenheim’s vocal eruption and the immediate reaction of drums and synths. It makes me think of Silver Machine, an unlikely hit for Hawkwind in 1972. Did anyone mention the word juggernaut?

Hawkwind - Silver Machine (1972)

Hawkwind – Silver Machine (1972): an inspiration for zZz?

zZz’s style may be wild, but it’s not flat. Which is largely down to Schinkel’s swirling keyboards. ‘Juggernaut’ rolls on in a variety of moods: punky (My Girl), slow-burning (Dead End), moving (Doze) and voiceless (Red Beat). The latter a pastische of late seventies, drum computer-fed electronic music. It sounds as if the album’s end is near, but the real Juggernaut is yet to come: a sidelong, trance-inducing slice of neokraut.

Surfing the waves of intensity

Considering the shorter songs on ‘Juggernaut’ are not too bizarre, the title track signals a radical change of direction. Luckily, the piece does not stumble forward aimlessly: its teasing intro and subtle waves of intensity are arresting enough to keep you from feeling completely numb.

A bit of a mixed bag, ‘Juggernaut’ is a more than decent record – and a worthy addition to the discography of excellent Dutch rock label Excelsior Records. It’s striking how zZz carves out its own path. In these times of hot air, ‘Juggernaut’ is refreshingly welcome.

Stand-out track:

This review is based on a piece I wrote for daMusic.be in Dutch.

Organ and Electric Piano

So Much Body: 16 Hours of Organ and Electric Piano

“You got an organ goin’ there, no wonder the sound has so much body”, says an authoritative voice at the beginning of DJ Shadow’s Organ Donor. And it’s true. Organs have been colouring and beefing up music for over fifty years. And so have electric pianos. They deserve a playlist of their own. Now they got one!

Miles’ fault

This list is all about Wurlitzers and Fender Rhodes pianos, Hammond B3 organs and their inseparable rotating Leslie speakers. I guess we should thank the jazz guys for making these instruments cool as a cucumber.

People like Jimmy Smith and Larry Young behind their Hammonds. And Miles Davis, who forced Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock to play electrically on milestone albums like ‘In a Silent Way’ (1969) and ‘Bitches Brew’ (1970).

Miles Davis 'In A Silent Way'
“You want me to play that toy?”
was Hancock’s immediate reaction. After that, it seems as if his and Corea’s hands were glued to their Fenders, resulting in masterpieces of their own: the Brazilion fusion of ‘Light as a Feather’ (1972) and the pioneering funkjazz of ‘Headhunters’ (1973).

spotify:user:116741169:playlist:4YcNp6EYubgZEK4hDIAjnl

Common pieces of machinery

Sprinkling sparse notes, weaving gentle tapestries or cementing mighty improvisations, organs and electric pianos have become common pieces of studio machinery. Just to cite a few:

  • hitmakers 10cc (I’m Not In Love), Queen (You’re My Best Friend), Sam Brown (Stop), Tears For Fears (Sowing The Seeds Of Love), Squeeze (Tempted)
  • yacht rock captains Bobby Caldwell (What You Won’t Do For Love), Player (Baby Come Back), Michael McDonald (Keep Forgettin)
  • jazz crusaders Miles Davis (Shhh / Peaceful), Squarepusher (Male Pill Part 13), The Cannonball Adderley Quintet (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy), Brad Mehldau (Luxe), Marc Cary Focus (Spectrum)

Toro Y Moi 'Underneath The Pine'

  • prog rock giants Van Der Graaf Generator (Nutter Alert), Wigwam (Losing Hold), Focus (Round Goes the Gossip), The Alan Parsons Project (I Robot)
  • funk and disco kings and queens George Duke (Brazilian Love Affair), Young-Holt Unlimited (Where Is the Love?), The Firebolts (Everybody Dance)
  • indie rock outfits Grizzly Bear (Two Weeks), Comets On Fire (Sour Smoke), Girls (Jamie Marie), Toro Y Moi (Still Sound), Radiohead (Subterranean Homesick Alien)
  • sound architects Brian Eno (Julie With)

And now have a listen: brace yourself for a reverberating 16 hours, and do send me your favourites!