Handsome Furs - Face Control Review

Most greeted Plague Park with enthusiasm that didn’t match the reaction (including myself). Handsome Furs’ Dan Boeckner is also one of the leaders of Wolf Parade, a band that specializes in twitchy and nerve-rattling rhythms much in the same way that their Apologies to Queen Mary producer Isaac Brock’s Modest Mouse does. Comparisons between Brock and Boeckner were unyielding but often apt; cut from the same cloth, but not carbon copies. So this Handsome Furs racket was anticipated as another sweaty burst of jangly extremes but arrived as a grim and moody venture across an ungainly technoid wasteland of sandy synths, clinical acoustica and black root storytelling. Reevaluation has been kind to its legacy but it still didn’t ring entirely true. As a side project, it could be forgiven as an outlet for Boeckner’s alter egos and songwriting aspirations, but an occasionally electrifying mixed bag it remained.

With Face Control, though, Boeckner and co-captain Alexei Perry (once engaged to each other, now married) find a successful way to merge the two musical bluffs. Scuzzy, spaced-out atmospherics? They’re right here. But so too is the claustrophobic pulse and snappy tempos that made him famous. There’s a subtle change to the tone; calling it optimistic is laughable, but there is hope draped across these desperate and anguished tunes. And despite a crack and crumble to Boeckner’s vocals, they’re tortured in a way that suggests that he thinks things could be all right after all, just not yet.

Drum machines and keyboard digs propel the rhythms to heightened planes. The creases are crisp, but there’s an undeniably dense texture when the trembling guitars grind distortion beneath the pulse. The hard, hammering thump of “Talking Hotel Arbat Blues” beats you into submission, but Boeckner’s vocals are playful like a poltergeist—feverish and cruel but with the sort of frisky smirk that Heath Ledger won an Oscar for. The bookend tracks are the most immediately catchy. “Legal Tender” begins things on a hot panic, words being spat over spiking beats, nervously cracking like Spoon’s “They Never Got You.” And “Radio Kaliningrad” is perhaps the most robust song on the entire record, a track that could find friends in arenas but with a restless groove that’ll keep hips shaking no matter the crowd.

A few curveballs are thrown our way to keep things interesting. “All We Want, Baby, Is Everything” ignores the more detached nature of this synthetic structure and builds a fire beneath the machine, evoking the posturing passion of Dire Straits or Rusted Root when they went pop-happy. “I’m Confused” trades back and forth between the image of a guitarist squalling for solo attention and the robotic keys of early-80s electropop acts. “Officer of Hearts” lasts almost six minutes and slows down the beat; the vocals sound like Bono trying out “In the Air Tonight” with a hangover. Even the pair of minute-and-a-half instrumental tracks eschew ambient drones that plug atmosphere into other albums of its style and instead keep things subtly busy and percolating.

Boeckner’s fatalistic but inscrutable storytelling makes sure that the dance-worthy tracks never drift into dark bubblegum. It’s never easy to pin down what he’s trying to say specifically, but song titles alone hint that there’s some Cold War dread going on. But he’s not content to be simply dishing on komrades and opens up for some more universal themes. “Nyet Spasiba” passes on politics for imagery of ships across the sea and freezing water. “Arbat Blues” plays with Communist occupation and merges it with the unsavory practice of “face control” (the act of denying certain less-than-attractive patrons entrance into nightclubs): “There was a guy who came in from the cold/But he’s never gonna get past face control.”

This album’s release date was postponed more than a month while the team scrambled to get permission from New Order to allow a reference on “All We Want” to get approval. It’s fitting that New Order needed to give the green light since Perry’s synthesizer stabs and sparse backdrops are reminiscent of their most darkly emotive moments. And like New Order, they are at their best when they bring emotion and purpose to their mechanical playbooks. Marriage might have given Boeckner and Perry more heart, but the struggle is there too, bubbling up into both the singing and instruments. Bouncing between Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, Boeckner is keeping himself busy, but based on the diminished returns of At Mount Zoomer and the improvements made here, I don’t know which one I’d prefer to see him make a full-time job. I hope he can keep them both going, because Handsome Furs is no longer a mere side project but a venture worthy of acclaim.

"Face Control" is on sale March 10, 2009 from Sub Pop.

Matt Medlock


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