Franz Ferdinand : Always Ascending

The early 2000s. It was a magical time for music, wasn’t it? We were overwhelmed with a wave of new and exciting bands mining post-punk and new wave artists past that maybe never got the love and respect they deserved in their moment of awakening. Bands like The Strokes, Interpol, Art Brut, The Killers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Franz Ferdinand appeared on the music skyline and gave us a reason to erase nu metal, Kid Rock, and boy bands out of our collective minds. Fast forward to 2018 and of all those acts I mentioned Franz Ferdinand are the only ones left that have remained relative in the current music zeitgeist. And really, their 2004 debut still sounds pretty damn good 14 years on. It was fun, jagged, dance-y, and didn’t take itself so damn seriously. They followed up their self-titled with the more rock and roll You Could Have It So Much Better in 2005. They took four years to release album number three, the synth-heavy Tonight : Franz Ferdinand in 2009. Their last album, 2013s Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions which tried to capture some of that debut album magic, but to mixed results.

Much like the rest of those self-assured young punks of the early 2000s that gave us all hope that music was once again heading in the right direction, by album number 3 things just started to wain a bit for Franz Ferdinand. Still, these Scots aren’t ready to call it quits. Alex Capranos and company have returned with the mildly triumphant Always Ascending. Nothing has been rewritten. The recipe hasn’t been thrown out and created from scratch. No, this record is a revisiting to all those things that worked for Franz Ferdinand; from the angular riffs to the new wave dance numbers and all around goofy abandon, it’s all here. Hit play and just have some fun, why don’t you.

“Always Ascending” starts things out on a fantastically Franz Ferdinand-ian note. We’re given a big, wistful, dreamy opening that sounds very James Murphy-like as the song descends into a sweaty, hedonistic disco groove. Alex Capranos has been one of my favorite front men to emerge in the last 15 years. He just comes across as a guy I’d love to drink a pint with and maybe talk Orange Juice and Wire a bit with. This song is comfort food for my ears. “Lazy Boy” keeps those late night 70s disco vibes going just fine with another self-deprecating song that Capranos seems so well at making. It’s very Gang of Four, minus the militant scowls and punk vitriol. You can almost always count on a poetic bit of balladeering on nearly every Ferdinand release, and “The Academy Award” takes that mantle proudly. It’s a beautifully melancholy piece of music that brings to mind both Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker. So yeah, it’s a tear-dampened handkerchief used to clean up a bloody nose as you drive home to an empty existence with an empty fridge kind of song. “Lois Lane” is a lanky synth pop track that you can’t help but bob your head to. It’s like The Human League and Madness playing ping pong in the studio as Talk Talk discussed song arrangements.

Elsewhere, “Huck and Jim” gets a little noisy with big guitars and prevalent bass with some hip hop vibes thrown in for good measure. “Glimpse Of Love” is shimmering guitar and 80s alternative swagger, while “Feel The Love Go” lays down some serious club vibes with Capranos asking the usual questions in the way Alex Capranos does. “Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow” tries to make its mark as the last track, but while it has lots of melodrama and production schmaltz it sort of gets forgotten in the wake of the Franz Ferdinand dance party we just experienced.

Franz Ferdinand are a guilty pleasure I’m not about to give up. Always Ascending is a welcome reprieve from the typhoon of junk I see and hear daily every time I open a newspaper or watch the news. Alex Capranos and Franz Ferdinand are the comfort food for my ears that makes me feel like things are gonna be okay. Maybe even if its just for 40 minutes, I can just get lost in weirdly sentimental dance music that reminds me of simpler times. You know, when there was a Bush in office and New York was healing itself, one Strokes album at a time. And four Scots called Franz Ferdinand wanted to “Take Me Out”.

7.9 out of 10

Protomartyr : Relatives In Descent

The Motor City’s Protomartyr sound like modern harbingers of doom. Singer Joe Casey takes the podium front and center like a prophet telling us the secrets of our demise as a society in riddles, suggestions, and proclamations. Guitarist Greg Ahee blends melodic moments with outright blasts of contempt, while bassist Scott Davidson and drummer Alex Leonard lay the foundation to which Casey and Ahee can blast us with poetic chaos. They’ve been building their post-punk brand for nearly 10 years now and with each record they’ve honed their desolation music with precision, coming to near perfection with 2015s The Agent Intellect.

Protomartyr are back and have jumped from Hardly Art to Domino Records. Their debut with Domino is the poignantly titled Relatives In Descent, a post-punk/noise rock art piece that seems to reflect the current state of disarray our country is currently in. This record cuts delicately, but it still cuts deep.

One constant in the music of Protomartyr is the sense of urgency that pumps through each track. And yet you feel you must push forward there’s still an elegance in the poetry of Joe Casey and the music the band backs his words with. “A Private Understanding” opens with tension. A feeling that something important needs to happen. It opens with busy drums and the guitars trying to find resolve. There is a resolve in the chorus as Casey keeps repeating “She’s just trying to reach you”. “Here Is The Thing” sounds like Pere Ubu on a Gang of Four jag. Casey does his best street-level preacher; a dystopian philosopher preaching his sermon on the mound. “Windsor Hum” wonders if things might be better across the river, while “Night-Blooming Cereus” is much more of a contemplative track. This is the most Protomartyr have ever sounded like Wire. On the other side of that coin, “Up The Tower” explodes into musical shards and shrapnel with hardcore vigor. Mark E. Smith is somewhere in this track, rearing his angst-y, curmudgeonly head. “Corpses In Regalia” has an angular feel with the airtight rhythm section while Ahee lays down some almost Andy Sommers guitar vibe. “Half Sister” sounds like doom and gloom for the coffeehouse crowd.

I think where Protomartyr succeed most is when they disengage the fuzz and noise and go for more of a fierce Smiths sound. Jangly guitars, tight rhythm section, and plenty of room for Joe Casey to spit his vitriol all over the place. When things get too noisy Casey gets lost in the mix and that’s a shame as he’s got plenty to say.

Relatives In Descent is a continued steady march towards something greater. There are moments that feel they need a little tweaking, but those are few and far between. These Motor City prophets are still as urgent as ever. We just need to open our ears and take it all in.

7.6 out of 10

Martin Courtney : Many Moons

There’s something about Martin Courtney’s voice that just gets me. He has one of those voices that no matter what he’s singing he always just sounds like him. There’smany-moons no grandiose accenting or histrionics when he sings songs like “It’s Real” or “Talking Backwards” with his main gig Real Estate. You get the impression when you hear him that he’s more or less a guy that’s been wounded by life a time or two and he carries that wound in his voice. His delivery is easy going, but not lackadaisical. Maybe he’s a little high or he’s got a beer buzz, but he’s never slurred in his words about old neighborhoods, old lovers, and past mistakes. I love Courtney’s voice and Real Estate like some people love The Dead and Dylan. It doesn’t matter what you say or how boring or lacking in energy his music is, I’ll tell you that you just aren’t listening hard enough. There’s something even transcendent about Martin Courtney and Real Estate. There’s an existential weight that dangles over their music that no one else today is really reaching. To the naked ear, it’s mopey jangle rock. But if you put your ear a little closer to the tracks, in the distance there’s rumblings of something completely different.

But here’s the thing, when the guys in Real Estate go off and do their own thing, while still a good listen, it’s just not the same. Alex Bleeker and the Freaks, Matt Mondanile and Ducktails, and now a solo Martin Courtney. Together in Real Estate these guys make a special kind of mopey magic. Apart it’s not quite as existenially heavy. The advantage Courtney has over his bandmates? His voice, of course.

Many Moons is a great album. It’s a breezy listen that would have made an excellent summer album. Something you crank up driving down a two-lane highway to some warm and sunny destination. But since it was released in fall, I guess it’ll make a fine autumn album as well. “Awake” could have been a b-side to something off of Real Estate’s Days. There’s nothing that distinguishes this lovely track from a Real Estate song, really. It has the same melancholy vibe and stoned strum that makes Real Estate fodder for the broken-hearted and disenfranchised. This isn’t a knock on the song. Just pointing that out. “Foto” feels like 70s singer/songwriter fare. The kind of song that idles in the middle. Somewhere stuck between the major and minor chords, taking it’s four and a half minutes to find an emotion to settle on. “Vestiges” keeps the 70s vibe going with what sounds like a slightly beefier Bread. Instead of whining about the girl that got away and sounding all emasculated, Courtney visits familiar territory in New Jersey backyard barbecues and partying in bygone eras. “Northern Highway” is a shimmering pop track that contains a formula for songwriting Courtney should repeat for future solo ventures. It encapsulates both late-60s California and mid-90s New Jersey within it’s quick moving four minutes. Think Byrds and Yo La Tengo coming together for something quite special. More of this kind of thing would’ve made this record go from good to “Damn!” “Many Moons” is a short instrumental that opens side two and it feels a little a bit too soft rock for it’s own good. Strings and flute build the song from a quiet acoustic strummer into something you’d expect to hear playing quietly above your head at the doctor’s office. Real Estate do great instrumental tunes, they really do. This is just borderline sappy. “Asleep” is a wondeful little number with a sad and lamenting feel to it. “Airport Bar” is another great tune that starts out a bit like something off Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled record. Seems like a good point to end the album.

While not a perfect record, Martin Courtney’s Many Moons is a breezy, pastoral album that only suffers occasionally from a tad too much artificial sweetener.

7.8 out of 10