Franz Ferdinand is this year's Franz Ferdinand. Let me explain: A hoary music-business maxim holds that an artist's second record will disappoint. It's called the sophomore slump. And it's bullshit.
Sure, bands often get full of themselves and really suck with the follow-up to a big album, and that doesn't even count the bands that have had exactly one good idea in their careers. No, it's bullshit because it's meaningless to anyone who buys music to enjoy it. But it's the sort of idea that's venerated, like music-chart positions and weekend box-office grosses, by all the marketing-meeting cant that passes for criticism these days -- "The Bravery is this year's the Killers!" Hence, much of the focus on You Could Have It So Much Better will be on how Franz Ferdinand has followed up last year's breakout debut.
Well, the members have followed up Franz Ferdinand by realizing that the group was very, very lucky the first time around, so why not savor the good fortune? That became clear when I dropped in on the New York set of the band's music video for the new disc's first single, "Do You Want To?" Videos, like sausage and Pam Anderson's breasts, are better enjoyed with no knowledge of how they were made. The shoots are even more chaotic and absurd than the quick-cut fantasies they produce, and most artists are shuttled through them like cattle nosing toward the abattoir.
The funny thing was how much Alex Kapranos and his identically dressed mates made a point of enjoying themselves amid the ridiculousness. (How ridiculous? The band was vaulted from a huge bed into a phalanx of professionally weird-looking extras and spindly models in granny panties, take after take, for an hour-and-a-half. And the champagne in their glasses was diet ginger ale.) If you're looking for a metaphor here, it doesn't take too much thought to see how that attitude extended to the whole enterprise of the feared sophomore album. Take your job, but not yourself, very seriously; expectations and everything else are bullshit.
That resonates in the confidence of You Could Have It So Much Better. The band still sounds like one signed to Domino (the cool-as-fuck British label known for Clinic, Clearlake and Four Tet), but one bent on inviting more people to the party. The same angular guitars that drove "Take Me Out" into the squinting gaze of the mainstream are in abundance, but the grooves are deeper and danceable. For every purely punchy song like the de facto title track, "You Could Have It So Much Better," there's one that marries post-punk spikiness with the swing of a seductively open hi-hat. It's both arty and utilitarian, like the Michael Graves housewares at Target.
"'Outsiders' is very much like a dance song, the structures and dynamics of dance music," Kapranos said once he got a break from the video. "But it's still very much a live band as well. All that great dance music is sequenced, but we wanted to have that pull and sway that you get when you play off each other. That was quite important to us when we were recording, to make sure that it was the sound of four people playing in a room together that we got onto the record."
That's brilliant, except that there's no conclusive evidence that people still dance to rock bands. Sure, it happens in some hipster conclaves, but after the '90s irony pandemic, no one's sure whether it's actual dancing or a series of spastic poses. Mostly dancing is still relegated to clubs that pound out bowel-loosening, four-on-four bass beats. So we can be pretty certain that no one's asked for this from Franz Ferdinand. The idea seems to have come from what Kapranos expresses as wanting "to go in and make sure we still sounded like us but do something new. There's no point in repeating yourselves."
So the single is the overtly, obnoxiously catchy "Do You Want To?" "This Boy," which follows, might well have been the easier choice, since it tracks more closely to "Take Me Out." Maybe too the morally ambiguous "The Fallen." But this single, the song meant to win over radio programmers who still aren't sure how they let these Scottish guys run all over their playlists to begin with, is different. It's drily funky and cheeky as all hell, with a new-wavy sing-along hook and lyrics built on pickup banalities and arrogant mania: "When I woke up tonight, I said, 'I'm going to make somebody love me ... And now I know, now I know, now I know/I know that it's you/You're lucky, lucky! You're so lucky!" I may never watch "Taradise" the same way again.
Fuck, though. It's all so smart. The dreamy "Eleanor, Put Your Boots Back On" is affecting poetry about a Brooklyn-to-Scotland romance borne aloft on the Gulf Stream. Or take "You're the Reason I'm Leaving." You can project your most recent romantic argument onto a line like, "I have no idea if in four years I'll be hanging from a beam." Here's Kapranos' explanation: "The last verse of that song is about the time I was driving to a friend of mine's funeral. I was driving in the car, and it was under this fantastically optimistic springtime sun sometime in late March a few years ago. I was feeling overwhelmingly, obviously horrible, horrible that this guy died, and at the same time, the weather wasn't matching up. And then a song came on the radio which I didn't like, one of those slightly saccharine romantic songs. The sentiment of the song really struck me. As I was driving, I began cursing this dead guy whose funeral I was going to, like, 'You sod! I'm here crying to this song I don't like because I'm going to your funeral!' And that's an example of when you have all those contrasting emotions pulling you in so many different directions."
Find something else that complex from a band that's been on a Now That's What I Call Music! compilation. But then, Franz Ferdinand never did sound like a band that should've gotten as big as it did. And now, with the challenging but altogether likable and accessible You Could Have It So Much Better, it again doesn't sound like one of those bands. Who knows whether this CD will succeed on the scale of the first one, but the mere prospect of Franz Ferdinand's again landing on pop radio may be the season's best reason to poke your head out of your narrow-cast prairie-dog mound. That's why Franz Ferdinand is this year's Franz Ferdinand.
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