|Franz Ferdinand - You Could Have It So Much Better|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Charles Andrews|
|Tuesday, 04 October 2005|
You might as well surrender. You can hold out for a while, even find fault, but the goods are in these grooves. This album is just heavy with instant classics classically derived and delivered with unflagging energy, and I can’t wait to hear what the future holds from Franz Ferdinand.
That could be the opening paragraph of this review of their new album. (Well, um, it is.) But it is also, with only one alteration (removing the word “debut” that preceded “album”), the closing paragraph of my review of their major-label debut album, which ran just over a year ago in Audio Video Revolution.
It was either my first or second review for the mag, and if you haven’t done this for a while, you’re a bit cautious when you find something really, really good in your player; you don’t want to leap off any deep ends, knowing the potential for utter shame and humiliation when you read your rave a year or two later and it’s … so wrong. (I still get the heebie-jeebies every time I hear an REO Speedwagon song, having prominently hailed, in New Mexico’s largest newspaper, their ‘80s Hi Infidelity album as being some kind of paragon of perfect pop, one of the most impressively-crafted albums of hook-laden, no-misses, irresistible rockin’ songs ever, and how can you not acknowledge such an achievement? Even though popular opinion made me look prophetic as the disc commandeered FM and AM radio for months and remained on the charts for 65 weeks – 32 in the Top Ten, seven at # 1, while an unprecedented five, count ‘em, five, singles from the album cracked the Top 25 – I knew in my heart it was a piece of artistically vacant crap that no gazillions of sales could redeem, and I should have said so. I should have excoriated it for the perfection of its formulaic craft, rather than praised it. I should have put out a contract on Kevin Cronin, knowing any jury with ears would set me free, with gratitude. Never again!)
But here I am going out on that limb again, not once but twice, for the same group of Scottish lads trying so hard to write clever hit songs that with their sophomore release they’ve practically mirrored their eponymous debut smash. What’s the difference? Doesn’t that make them the calculating, cynical twenty-first-century Speedwagon?
The difference is that wiggly line between art and imitation. Not trying to beat the life out of the REO Ferdinand horse analogy, but while the old guys seemed to be going so blatantly for hits, dropping their harder-rocking approach for a much slicker, Hooks-R-Us pop context, sort of a stealth attack on the listener and his disposable income, FF came out of the blocks announcing This is Franz Ferdinand, this is what we do, we’re so damned good at it that we’ve raised hooks synthesis to an art form and added our own endearingly snotty intellectual attitude, and you’re gonna love us. And we did. They didn’t dominate but were well-represented on the airwaves, and sold half a gazillion albums (actually … nowhere close to Hi Infidelity’s 10 mil plus), and while the concept of “released singles” has virtually disappeared, there were at least five songs from that first album that got played like singles. And there are at least that many that good on the new one.
After a year of adulation, big sales and sold-out tours and critical acclaim, it’s no wonder the boys are oozing even more attitude, and getting a little more bold in their music and their lyrics, adding a little more mascara and stillettos, flipping in the first two songs from Jesus to cocaine, gay sex and out-of-control ego. But with a head that started out big, they haven’t spun out of control, and if anything You Could Have It So Much Better is a slight step up. Ordinarily, a band with a big debut success would be criticized for trying to repeat it in the same mold, but FF is so whip smart you just stand in awe as they show you Part Two of what they can do. If the Beatles had released the White Album as two separate albums, we’d still have loved and admired them both.
At first I was disappointed in Better. It sounded so similar, but not as good, as though these were the songs that were left over, not good enough for the first album. But just as the artistry and inventiveness seeped through to the surface on the first album after repeated listenings, it did again, but quicker because I knew what to listen for, and there it was.
They again hit you with hook after hook of pop references from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, changing musical personae like a bipolar chameleon and gears and tempos so fast it snaps your synapses, and all within individual songs. You could make the case that not a single one of their numbers stays in the same mode from start to finish. Though they’re trying to show off, it’s not done purely for show but for effect, and because it’s so musically informed and artistically crafted, it works, it really works. When a song of theirs you like comes on the radio, or your player, it’s like getting Neapolitan-plus instead of a single scoop. If a dozen songs on an album show you at the very most a dozen sides of a performer, with Franz Ferdinand, you get 40 or 50 slices of who they are. And none of it bombs, all of it’s so good, how can you not love these guys? How can you not love a band that does the best Oingo Boingo imitation (“This Boy”) ever?
Each of the four lads is just a stellar musician, combining power and chops and smarts in the most potent mix. But I’ve got to single out Paul Thompson as simply the best rock drummer I’m hearing anywhere, powering FF songs to peaks and changes they’d otherwise miss, every time you turn around, and Alex Kapranos as the Singers’ Singer, with a voice so versatile it’s scary. And what other band boasts a lead singer who doubles as a food critic for The Guardian? I think that says it all.
Same as the first album. And you shouldn’t mess with something so integral to your success. It’s a bit muddied, which is necessary for a sound that sometimes screams guitars, sometimes fuzzes ‘em, blasts the very occasional synth wall, lets every instrument come forward for a turn on lead, and teases the listener by hiding harmonicas or little harmony vocals or la-la-las or acoustic guitars on the edges or deep in the middle, gems you won’t discover unless you’ve got a good system and play it loud. They play a little with a more straightforward spare mix twice, spotlighting the big piano sounds so crucial to “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” and the ethereal tone of “Fade Together” that exposes the squeaking sound of fingers sliding over acoustic guitar strings. But the mix is the message, everything is discernible, and seemingly just where they want it. I have this secret producer in my head that pops up whenever I’m listening critically to music and says, Shoulda thrown a great bass line in there, shoulda ended stronger, ditch the piano, whatever, and he’s been totally silent through both these Franz Ferdinand albums. Great songs and performances can be dissipated in an inappropriate mix, but all the details line up here for a great result.
We discovered after press time that this album was released later in a CD + DVD version, too late for us to obtain a review copy. Press info indicates the DVD contains the entire album in 5.1 mix surround sound, plus a photo gallery, interview and studio footage, video clips and the video for “Do You Want To.”