All hail the power chord. It is a modern-rock staple that simply refuses to die; for all the aural voodoo the latest version of Pro Tools can wreak upon your eardrums, sometimes there is just no substitute for a Fender Stratocaster and a good pair of drum sticks. “You Could Have It So Much Better,” the explosive, damn near-perfect sophomore album by Franz Ferdinand, elevates the Scottish rock quartet to the lofty heights of such mainstream modern-rock forerunners as Weezer, Green Day, and — dare I say it — AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. On this album, the power chord becomes a power play, one that succeeds with flying colors.
Of course, there are more than a few contenders for lord of the chord, but Franz Ferdinand is simply better than all of them. They have the youth appeal of the Strokes without the stoned aloofness and the musicality of the White Stripes without the off-putting creepiness. The straightforward pop precision on “So Much Better” suggests that Franz Ferdinand is just a group of regular young Scottish lads with a whole lot of talent and the good luck to get it on the air, no gimmicks required.
They tear out of the gate with “The Fallen,” a head-pounding rocker whose impossibly catchy guitar licks and anthemic woo-hoos fuse Queen and the Beach Boys and never look back. Lead singer Alex Kapranos delivers the manically aggressive lyrics with eye-winking slyness: “In my blood I felt bubbles burst/ There was a flash of fist an eyebrow burst/ You’ve a lazy laugh and a red-white shirt/ I fall to the floor fainting at the sight of blood.” It would be shamefully cliche of Kapranos to bellow such a verse; instead, he sings it in that heavily-filtered, radio-announcer voice of his, made famous by their first hit “Take Me Out” from their self-titled 2004 debut. He tears through pages of lyrics over the course of the song, catching his breath only when the guitars take over and practically force him out of the way.
Yet Kapranos never falls into a rut, despite his wordiness. On “Walk Away,” he replaces the kitsch of his “Take Me Out” voice with intimacy, perhaps even tenderness. “I swapped my innocence for pride/ Crushed the end within my stride/ Said I’m strong now I know that I’m a leaver/ I love the sound of you walking away,” he sings with the candid inexperience of a confused teenager. The hormonal hopelessness of the lyrics and instantly charming melody make “Walk Away” a natural successor to Green Day’s Gen-Y smash “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” But unlike the rockers from San Francisco, Franz Ferdinand never spreads the schmaltz too thick; the song’s last few lines prove their oddball sense of humor is alive and well. “The stab of a stiletto on a silent night/ Stalin smiles, Hitler laughs/ Churchill claps Mao Tse-Tung on the back,” Kapranos mumbles over the last few guitar strums.
So the band has conquered the head-banger and the neo-power ballad — what’s next? Try “Eleanor Put Your Boots On,” a chirpy, piano-driven ditty that channels the English-countryside vibe of The Beatles or Simon and Garfunkel. On the track, guitarist Nick McCarthy trades in his electric power riffs for an autumnal, acoustic sound with a carefree, folksy air. The song’s understated charm is a quiet highlight amidst some of the most vibrant, energetic rock-n-roll of the decade.
Though old-guard rock acts like Weezer are not quite past their prime, “You Could Have It So Much Better” proves there is a massive sea change stirring. How many power chords does Rivers Cuomo have left, anyway? Calling all fans of forward-thinking, unabashed, guts-on-the-floor rock-n-roll: the torch has been passed.