You Could Have It So Much Better

"Do You Want To" — the first single from the second album by punk-pop Scots Franz Ferdinand — starts the same way all great rock & roll dance-party 45s of the mid-Sixties did: in mono. For the first eighteen seconds, the entire band is, if you're listening with headphones, crammed into the center of your cranium: the cutting unison guitars of Alex Kapranos and Nick McCarthy; the interlocked swagger of bassist Bob Hardy and drummer Paul Thomson; Kapranos' arrogant vocal cheer — "I'm gonna make somebody love me" — sugared with sweet-whine harmonies. Then the music goes widescreen. The guitars fan out in snarling stereo; the bass and drums goose-step up the middle. And when that doot doo-doot vocal hook kicks in, it sounds like a gang of droogs busting up a 1965 Beach Boys session.

Franz Ferdinand easily won the Kings of the New Wave Revival sweepstakes — trumping British peers like Bloc Party and the Futureheads — with the Sta-Prest jump and firecracker choruses of their 2004 debut, Franz Ferdinand. But the tight lightning on You Could Have It So Much Better shows deeper roots in the first wave of white electric dance music: specifically the crunchy-guitar R&B and arch-garage songwriting of 1965-67 Kinks. The creeping intro of guitar and kick drum in "Evil and a Heathen" snaps me back to "Milk Cow Blues" on The Kink Kontroversy, and the way Kapranos and McCarthy fire up "The Fallen" and "You're the Reason I'm Leaving" with pitted grinding riffs instead of power chords is right out of the "You Really Got Me" composer's manual. On top of that, Kapranos often sings in a sighing tenor that suggests a less precious Ray Davies with a hipster-ennui dash of the Strokes' Julian Casablancas, especially next to the parlor-piano rolls in "Eleanor Put Your Boots On." Either by accident or conscious homage, Franz Ferdinand have made an album that, in more places and ways than you'd expect, is closer to Face to Face than to Gang of Four's Entertainment!

There is nothing antique about the results. "This Boy" is a song about the vengeance of bling — "I see losers losing everywhere/If I lose, it'll only be the damn I give for another" — built with lethal concision: 2:18 of dirty-surf guitars atop an impatient disco throb. "Evil and a Heathen" is over in even less time but suitable for endless replay and pogo-ing, with its pulse and crusted twang soaked in psychedelic phasing, like the White Stripes at play in the Small Faces' "Itchycoo Park." One of the best songs here actually has nothing to do with distortion or dancing. In "Walk Away," Kapranos shows off the hurt he's turned into triumph ("Yes, I'm cold/But not as cold as you are/I love the sound of you walking away") with an irresistible overcast-glam blend of acoustic guitar and circus organ.

The problem with You Could Have It So Much Better is, as with so many second albums, consistency. Franz Ferdinand never run out of knockout licks and vocal twists. But halfway through the record, some of the combinations feel more like schematics than songs. The jolts in tune and tempo in "Well That Was Easy" are jarring and unresolved, two good ideas in the wrong whole. "I'm Your Villain" is an awkward Metallica-style riff collage edited to Buzzcocks length, although the finish is an impressive blast of staccato descending guitar and explosive drumrolls. And even at thirteen songs in forty-one minutes, the album ends with two more tracks than it needs: the underdressed ballad "Fade Together" and the final shrug of "Outsiders." Franz Ferdinand would have been better off closing with the eleventh track, the title fight song. There's a whiff of the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" in the lyrics: "Now there's some grinning goon/On my TV screen/Telling us all that/It's all right because/She wears this and/He said that and/If you get some of these/It'll all be all right." But Kapranos isn't buying, and Franz Ferdinand rock in united opposition with pummeling guitars and a defiant climbing chorus. "You could have it so much better/If you try," Kapranos sings with needling intensity. For those two and a half blazing minutes, you'll think you've never had it so good.

x