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February 28, 2007

An exuberant little morsel, easily digested: Sound Bites - Alex Kapranos

Posted by A S H Smyth

Sound Bites
by Alex Kapranos
London: Penguin Fig Tree, 2006
Hardback, £12.99

There are not many lead singers whom I would immediately identify with the higher intellectual realms. Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that every aspirant rock-star or popster needs a PhD. But after a while, listening to the likes of Gwen Steffani is like finding yourself buried alive in Top Shop: as the light begins to fade, you realise you are holding out for one of the very rare successes hidden somewhere under the avalanche of cheap, teen-oriented crap.

Mercifully, there are always a few intrepid souls in the musical world who would rather die than pen a line like, oh, I don't know… this:

Slowly walking down the hall… faster than a cannonball
(Messrs Gallagher and Gallagher, of course, of Oasis). Musicians, in short, who boldly follow that grand old tradition of lyrics that make sense. And good sense, at that. Musicians ideally suited, one might venture, to the tastes of high-minded lowlifes. Ahem.

Off the top of my head… Jim Morrison read a lot of philosophy and poetry, and even a little on the psychology of crowds; Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy stuffs his songs with literary references; Jarvis Cocker must have got his laconic irony from somewhere (probably Noam Chomsky, though); even Pete Docherty - in whatever incarnation - has a bit of book-smart wit, if he can peel his face off the mirror for long enough to record a track. And then, of course, there's Alex Kapranos.

I can clearly recall the first time I heard Franz Ferdinand, the eponymous debut album by Kapranos & co. In incredulous tones I asked the nearest innocent bystander,

Did that guy just refer to his blazer?!
In retrospect, it wasn't a thinly-veiled revulsion that concerned me, but my ill-concealed glee. In my defence, we were sitting on an Oxford lawn - drinking champagne, eating swans, using servants as croquet hoops - and the blazer reference seemed just too too appropriate, darling. But how marvellous, I maintain: a singer who produces eloquent lyrics which have nothing to do with veganism, class war, fair trade, or bringing down a Bush government.

It is no great surprise, then, that I also think Sound Bites - Alex Kapranos' food and drink collection - is a great book. And no surprise that it is manifestly well-written, interesting, and wryly humorous. I apologise if that seems like a pretty low level of literary commentary; but it's amazing how often such essentials cannot be found in a book - especially books by celebrities, and ones which (for better or worse) they have written themselves.

Originating from a column in The Guardian (which perhaps explains the ropey title), Sound Bites details the gustatory adventures and misdemeanours of Franz Ferdinand as they travel the world on their musical mission, taking intelligent Brit-rock to benighted, far-flung parts of the globe. The USA, for example.

Kapranos comments on ambience, company, eating habits, locations, and obviously the manifold flavours and types of food encountered en route. He breaks his teeth on mussel-bound pearls, and gets food-poisoning. He eats where Tarantino has filmed, and the KGB have worked. He dines to the soundtrack of a riot, as Julie Christie and Rod Steiger did in Dr Zhivago.

Yes, food is still an adventure.
And though Kapranos doesn't, um, make a meal of it (it's too easy…), Sound Bites provides a little insight into the drudgery, boredom and wasted time involved in the supposedly glamorous lifestyle of musicians. There's as much eating cold pizza in a cramped bus as there is dining in style with famous types. This is not, thank the Muse, yet another taking-drugs-and-getting-laid memoir. Far from it: he strenuously objects to the notion that
if you are in a band, it's obligatory to behave like a boorish thug.
In writing this book (or these articles) Kapranos had two significant advantages. The first is his innate lyricism, as pervasive as
smoke from an Ottoman chimney.
You are getting your money's worth here, in the carefully-wrought form as much as in the content, as you would expect from a former English-lecturer.

The second is that Kapranos is in the rare position of knowing what he's talking about, food-wise, having first-hand experience of both sides of the culinary equation. Most food critics, sadly, were never chefs. And while Sound Bites isn't supposed to be a volume of serious food critique, the author's long CV of lowlier jobs (kitchen porter, wine waiter, chef) informs his discussion enough to make it precise but still readable, cover-to-cover.

But what makes the book really worth reading is the same quality that makes his songs worth hearing: his incisive and honest observation of everyday life.

I'm unashamedly nosey and love it. People are fascinating…
Too true.

In the course of travelling round the world two-and-a-half times, Kapranos sees all the pretty things, and all the ugliness and stupidity too.

I don't know how many times Prague has been invaded, but tonight it seems to have been invaded by wankers…
- a fair enough comment on almost any night in Prague.

Casually intelligent, Sound Bites is a healthy antidote to the self-congratulatory literature of pretentious foodies and debauching roadies alike. Kapranos does not try anything fancy, but lays out his refined stall and stands by it:

It's how eating out should be, comparing, sharing and discussing your food…
Alex Kapranos, thank you for sharing.

A S H Smyth is a freelance journalist, specialising in foreign affairs, conflict & security, and Southern Africa.

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