The Sophomore Stretch

Franz Ferdinand, the second time around.

The problem with making a really good first album is that you'll eventually have to make a second one. There are four basic strategies that bands have traditionally used for a follow-up to a debut that presents a fully formed aesthetic. The luckiest, or most skillful, bands sometimes come up with something that's very different from their first record—the Beastie Boys are the canonical example, and the Velvet Underground and Wire qualify, too. At the other end of the spectrum are the bands that are paralyzed by indecision or lack of material or good old-fashioned drugs, and wait to make their second album until nobody cares anymore: The Stone Roses and Elastica are the poster children here.

The other two possibilities involve following Stunning Debut Album with Stunning Debut Album Part II: The Sequel. Ideally, the outcome is a record that's just like the first, but deeper or tougher or more vivid. PJ Harvey and Belle & Sebastian are both good examples of that phenomenon, but it's exemplified by the Stooges' 1970 Fun House, freshly reissued by Rhino. The previous year's The Stooges had pushed their lean, ravenous garage-band sound all the way to the outer barriers. What you can hear on the early takes and outtakes appended to Fun House's new edition is the band bracing their heels against the sound of their debut, and ramming their skulls against those outer barriers until they hear something crack, then ramming some more.

Making S.D.A. II is risky, though. More often, bands end up in category four, with a record that was better the first time around. The Strokes' Room on Fire, for instance, was obsolete the moment it was released, because they'd already made Is This It. The same problem has plagued everyone from Liz Phair to Gang of Four. (The Ramones are arguably the only band that has ever made a second album exactly as strong as the first, in exactly the same ways—and even then Ramones wins, just because it was earlier.)

This brings us to Franz Ferdinand's second album, You Could Have It So Much Better (Epic). The Scottish glam-rock band has made no secret of the idea that it's not meant to be much of a departure from last year's Franz Ferdinand—originally, in fact, it was just going to be called Franz Ferdinand again, and have the same cover design, only in different colors. Fortunately, somebody talked them out of that.

The biggest change between the two records, actually, is their sequencing. Franz Ferdinand's best songs were scattered across its sequence; on YCHISMB, they're trying very hard to make a good first impression, so they've front-loaded the hottest stuff. It opens with "The Fallen," a scenery-chewing performance by singer Alex Kapranos, half-bellowing a fusillade of lyrics that conflate Christ and contemporary anarchists: "Turn the rich into wine/Walk on the mean."

It's followed by the high point of Franz's career to date: a vicious little song about having fun called "Do You Want To." It's a fabulously clever piece of songwriting, with a mirror-ball stomp in the rhythm section and some structural sleight of hand (the intro sounds like it's a piece of misdirection, like the beginning of "Take Me Out"—but then it comes back). The title is a come-on that turns into a threat and back into a come-on when Kapranos sings it (the phrase continues " . . . go where I never let you before"); the band sings "do do do" behind him, half as a question and half as an answer. "Lucky, lucky, you're so lucky," Kapranos growls in a tone that suggests he's just left both Kylie and Britney whimpering for more.

If all of YCHISMB were that good, it'd be The Road Warrior to the first album's Mad Max. Sadly, it drops off in a hurry. By the third song, Kapranos is coming up with truly awful rhymes ("If I like cocaine I'm racin' ya/For organic fresh echinacea"); the fourth one, "Walk Away," begins by paraphrasing Kraftwerk's "The Model," and ends by paraphrasing the first album's "Jacqueline."

The rest of the album oscillates between moments that are splendid in exactly the manner of Franz Ferdinand and moments where their static pose is starting to show cracks—reworked grooves, half-formed songs, embarrassing lyrics. "We are so cruel and to communicate/Without the red stuff being spilled/We must MDMA our sentiment," Kapranos sings with a straight face on "What You Meant."

NME reported in July that the band wasn't sure what to do about a song they'd recorded called "Turn It On"—it sounded like a potential hit, but it also sounded just like the first album's "Darts of Pleasure." (As it turns out, it's not on the new record.) They may well run into that problem again. Franz Ferdinand are still mightily impressive as a band—even their lesser songs sound juicy and sharp from a distance, and bassist Bob Hardy and drummer Paul Thomson have a deep bag of disco tricks. But You Could Have It So Much Better suggests that they've already let themselves go every place they're ever going to.

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Franz Ferdinand play the Paramount Theatre with Wolf Parade at 7:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 1–Sun., Oct. 2. $30.

 
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