Play It Again, Franz
Second Verse, Same as the First

So. Should be a short one this week.

I am running on fumes, writing full time (finally!), and getting very little sleep. Just one record, and I’m out. The coming weeks will see new ones by the Fiery Furnaces (and their grandmother, which is weird and yet oddly brilliant), Trey Anastasio, Wilco, Neal Morse, Kate Bush (after 12 years!), System of a Down and OutKast, among others. I still have about 15 new albums from the likes of Elbow, Supergrass, Roger Waters and Mark Eitzel sitting here waiting to be spun and dissected. I’ve picked one, and left the rest as a towering monument to my poor time management skills.

A quick note – my Serenity offer is still good, until next week. So far, no one (well, no one not named Mike Lachance) has taken me up on it, which may be a testament to the weakness of the consolation prize. Anyway, the deal is, go see Serenity. If you like it, congratulations. If you hate it, tell me why in an email and I will send you a dollar. And maybe an extra bribe of some kind. I’m really just interested to find out why the box office for this really cool movie is so pitifully low. The offer holds until I post next week’s column, on or around October 19.

* * * * *

I want to get this out of the way right up front. I do not hate Franz Ferdinand.

Some people have the impression that I despise them, which I figure can only come from the fact that I haven’t drowned them in drool and proclaimed them the greatest musical gods ever to walk the earth. I don’t hate them. My review of their first album was, to my mind, suitably complimentary – I called the record fun, danceable fluff.

Time has deepened my appreciation of Franz Ferdinand and their debut, though, and as I say this, I am ducking behind my desk so as to deflect the “we-told-you-so” stares from the hipper-than-thou internet cognoscenti. When I first heard the album, my impressions were colored by the overwhelming avalanche of hype the British press had heaped upon it, the breathless “Holy Crap!” pronouncements of total frigging genius. It’s kind of the same thing I suspect has happened with Serenity, actually – so many raving fans have deemed it the best science fiction film ever that the fun little adventure flick it actually is has been obscured. There’s nothing wrong with Franz Ferdinand, but they’re not redefining music for a new era.

And they know it, too. Just listen to their second effort, You Could Have It So Much Better, to hear what I mean. For a band so often considered the cutting edge, Franz have made a curiously conservative sophomore disc. In my review of the debut, I likened them to Morrissey’s disco band, and that comparison still stands. In fact, just about everything I said last time still holds, because this new one is practically a carbon copy of the first.

Franz have defined their sound by now, and it’s no longer all that novel. They play danceable guitar-pop with disco club overtones and sneering, faux-arrogant lyrics and vocals. They are the ultimate glam parody band, except they play it straight, and they write good songs. Singer Alex Kapranos has one of those voices that makes you want to punch him, especially when he hits the “you’re so lucky” refrains in “Do You Want To,” the first single from the new record. “I’m gonna make somebody love me,” he sings, “and now I know that it’s you.” And they say romance is dead. Jesus.

But part of my problem with Franz, and why I don’t connect with them in any significant way, is that they’re so utterly fake. They’re a show band, a flashy fun-time sex bomb act, an experiment in façade-building. Kapranos takes from a long and fruitful tradition of coy enigmas, and while some people may find unraveling the layers to find the chewy center an enjoyable pastime, I just don’t have the patience. It’s fairly obvious that the Franzers have carefully crafted both their sound and their image, and while I quite like and respect the former, I’m indifferent to the latter.

It’s the flurry of myth surrounding Franz Ferdinand that inflates them from decent party band to global fascination, and I couldn’t care less about any of it. I’m just here for the music.

And the music is pretty good, once again. Kapranos and Nick McCarthy are terrific guitarists, diving and ducking around each other while they parry with knives. The early XTC influences are a little more pronounced this time, with a few more reggae beats and a bunch of spunky melodies. Opener “The Fallen” finds the band tossing off a couple of really good riffs in the beginning, as if rummaging around for the best one, and when they find it, they truly lock in. Short, sharp tunes like “This Boy” and “Evil and a Heathen” are classic Franz, all slashing and preening. There’s nothing on You Could Have It So Much Better that sounds half-assed or hacked out.

But it sounds the same as the first album, pretty much exactly. It even slips into moderate tedium in its second half, just like the debut – Franz milk their one good trick over and over, and in the course of a 41-minute album, it gets tiring. Thankfully, they seem to realize this as well, and they’ve included a couple of songs that do find them stretching. In fact, one of them is the best reason I can give you to buy this album and not the first one, if you could only pick up one.

That song is “Eleanor Put Your Boots On,” a love poem from Kapranos to Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces. (Isn’t indie-cool love cute?) Rather than just write a Franz Ferdinand song for her, though, Kapranos and the band have turned in their best approximation of her band’s sound. “Eleanor” is a ramshackle acoustic lullaby, with perhaps the finest melody on either Franz album, and its lyrics and vocal delivery actually approach (gasp) sincerity. I’m not sure what it says about me that my favorite Franz Ferdinand song is the one that sounds nothing at all like them, but there you are.

My second-favorite Franz song is “Fade Together,” the eerie penultimate track, again all acoustic guitars and pianos. Kapranos doesn’t exactly have an acoustic-ballad voice, but here he effectively slips into a delightful falsetto for the chorus, one of the best on the record. It would have made an effective conclusion – sequencing the dub-inflected throwaway “Outsiders” last is such a blunder that I’m surprised it wasn’t voted down.

And I suppose the fact that I’m even noticing the track order on a Franz Ferdinand album is progress. Last time out, they did their one thing 11 times, and there wasn’t much you could say about one song that wouldn’t describe all of them. The original plan for You Could Have It So Much Better was to self-title the album again, and release it with the same cover art as the debut, tinted a different shade. Hopefully this speaks of self-awareness, because save for two tracks, this may as well be the same album. I like Franz, though, and I hope the bare hints of forward momentum here are not flukes, but the beginnings of artistic growth. As it is, the title they settled on is ironic – we could have it so much better, but this is more of the same.

Next week, Elbow.

See you in line Tuesday morning.