Two years ago we explored some of music’s great supergroups, and in most cases they constituted members of two or more disparate acts getting together to throw shit at recording studio walls to see what stuck. In passing we mentioned rare instances where whole acts including solo artists teamed up, namely Duck Sauce (the pairing of busy DJs A-Trak and Armand Van Helden) as well as Lou Reed and Metallica. We never really addressed two or more entire bands combining into a new concern. That wait is over, as angular Scottish indie-rockers Franz Ferdinand have joined veteran American band Sparks in a project and album called FFS. If that abbreviation looks familiar beyond the context of just “Franz Ferdinand and Sparks,” maybe you’ve seen it as social-media shorthand for “for fuck’s sake”—something you might think of saying out loud when listening to this music.
When you start to dive into FFS, early cuts like “Johnny Delusional” and “Call Girl,” there’s a sense that this was actually an inspired bit of stunt casting. Shunted together in the same rooms with the same equipment, we find an awful lot of commonality between the vocal affectations of FF’s Alex Kapranos and Sparks’ Russell Mael, their lyrical bite, and their bands’ ability to arrange dark or playful music as needed. On some theoretically progressive radio station, playing Franz Ferdinand’s “This Fire” b/w Sparks’ “Tryouts for the Human Race” might be unexpected but would make perfect sonic sense. The music made jointly by them as FFS ends up theatrical almost by default, a blessing of skill yet a curse of inaccessibility. FFS feels like the cast recording for a modern Broadway comedy with exactly none of the timing, subtlety, cringe factor, or social critiques of an Avenue Q or The Book of Mormon.
The themes of celebrity and hero worship rise to the surface often in this performance, but some songs work (“Little Guy from the Suburbs”) only marginally better than most (“The Power Couple”). The album’s closing diptych, meanwhile, is a painful one. “Collaborations Don’t Work” is a meandering theoretical on what could have been FFS’s worst-case scenario, and “Piss Off” suggests a misplaced anthem or rejected reprise from Spamalot!. In an alternate reality, “The Man Without a Tan” from this album could probably function as a Franz Ferdinand single and “So Desu Ne” would be a nice Sparks comeback. These few fruits nevertheless grow from an ultimately poisonous plant: The players here deliver all of this music with an overabundance of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and self-reference. The smartypants nature of FFS is just too telegraphed to be naturally entertaining.