Franz Ferdinand, University, Exeter<br></br>The Departure, ICA, London

Brainy boys are better in bed - and on stage too
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The Independent Culture

I say you don't know. You say you don't know. And I'm not sure I know either. The question is: what does the unstoppable runaway juggernaut of Franz Ferdinand's success - millions of CDs sold, the Mercury Prize just one of many richly-deserved awards - mean? A cynic might answer, deadpan, that ever since the demise of Pulp, there's been a vacancy for a chic, arty, intellectual pop group from northern Britain, and that pop, like nature, abhors a vacuum. But there was no historical inevitability at play here: if Alex Kapranos, at the age of 29 (by which time The Smiths, incidentally, had already split), hadn't decided to quit the day job and get serious, it's unlikely that anybody else would have invented Franz Ferdinand.

This isn't to say, of course, that the band themselves didn't predict their rise. Take the cocky interlude in "The Dark of the Matinee" wherein Kapranos imagines "I'm on BBC 2 now telling Terry Wogan how I made it, and/ What I made isn't clear now/ But his deference is, and his laughter is" (you think to yourself that it should have been Ross or Vaughan rather than Wogan, until you remember that he's describing his late Eighties adolescence), or the "This Fire" video, in which the foursome appear as corporate Bond villains bent on world domination, clinking celebratory cups of English tea as they stick another flag-pin in the map.

Tempting as it undeniably is, it would be wrong to take false hope from FF's rapid ascent and assume that there's a sudden mass hunger for pop with a beat and a brain. However, it's perfectly valid to cite them as evidence that, if you do it well enough, people will still listen. And nobody, for many a year, has combined the two with the skill and panache of Alex Kapranos, Nick McCarthy, Paul Thompson and Bob Hardy.

The annexation of the music channels means that children and chavs (who are basically children anyway) can see them and be changed, saved, improved.

Anyone lured by the hype to Exeter Uni tonight - and this is a very straight, non-indie crowd - will leave with altered perceptions of what pop music can be. It's a privilege to witness a band at the top of their game, and from the opening seconds - a rumble of orchestral timpani, a falling drape revealing that 1930s, Czech-styled logo, and the most viscerally exciting guitar line since Magazine's "Shot By Both Sides" - they're so commanding you almost have to giggle with glee.

"Michael", for this is their opener, is a perfect example of why Alex Kapranos has been lauded so loudly as a lyricist, the words and images tumbling over each other in an almost impressionistic hymn of homoerotic desire. And it's his film director's microscope eye for the minutiae of lust ("she only licked her lips, but I saw it...") and romance ("time every journey to bump into you accidentally") which are part of the attraction, and the reason why his every hip-wiggle elicits screams from the daughters of Devon.

It isn't only because he looks so good: bonily handsome, skinny as the backlit aliens on the ramp of the mothership in Close Encounters, carries his guitar like a Tommy carries his gun in an old war movie. It's because they realise that Franz Ferdinand's lyrics are an expression of intelligent hedonism, that only the very stupid and the very clever know how to be happy, and that brainy boys are better in bed.

The lyrics, of course, are all-but-lost in a live setting, so it's down to the chromatic arpeggios and shudderingly danceable rock-disco rhythms. On this physical level, Franz are equally invincible. In addition, there's a growing degree of showmanship to the Franz show, not merely in the increasingly glam visuals - the make-up they've taken to wearing, Nick McCarthy's sparkly red guitar - but also the way Alex pulls comedy strongman poses, the way Alex and Nick (who eyeball each other admiringly, almost lustfully) clash fretboards ceremonially like épées before a swordfight, the way they'll all stand on a drum riser and orchestrate audience handclaps, the way Thompson gives us a teasy little "Nah!" wave from behind the curtain before encores.

The combination is so intoxicating that, even at a venue which unaccountably stops serving booze at 9.30pm (No Fun Please, We're Students!), the ecstatic stomping sends seismic ripples through the sprung wooden floor. Just as Franz Ferdinand have done throughout British music itself.

What Franz Ferdinand exude isn't merely cool, which you can buy if you read the right (or wrong) magazines, but style, which you cannot. You can, however, be inspired.

The Departure, five dandyishly-dressed young men (aged between 21 and 23) from Northampton (where they were laughed at for their asymmetric Eighties haircuts by the tracksuited chavs), are clearly (though not solely) inspired by Franz Ferdinand. And, leaving inevitability aside, history is repeating itself so far. It's only a year ago that FF themselves, with only one single to their name, played a headline sell-out show at the ICA. Now it's The Departure's turn.

Their rise, to this point, has been as fast. They only formed in January, in April this column gave them their first ever review, and after intense music biz interest, they were signed by Parlophone, invited to tour with The Killers, and their first single, "All Mapped Out", made the top 30 with the minimum of hype.

A punchy, angular, outrageously hook-laden 50-50 mix of New Wave and New Romanticism (you keep imagining synths even when you can't hear them), The Departure were clearly listening to Duran Duran records when you weren't allowed to, and although singer David Jones may have grown up in a religious commune and had almost no contact with pop culture, he's clearly done his retro homework since, displaying traces of Morrissey lyrically ("I am only human... I have needs") and Richard Butler vocally ("Be myyye enemy, it's easier that wyyye").

Whether or not their sources are verboten, The Departure carry them with such confidence that it's impossible to argue. Tonight's show has the feeling of an event watershed, a turning point. Critical mass achieved. Can they go all the way to Mercury?

Franz Ferdinand: Carling Apollo, Manchester (0870 401 8000), Mon & Tue. The Departures: Barfly, Glasgow (0870 907 0999), tonight