It’s a well-known curio of pop history that the synth-led sound of Springsteen’s wilderness years was directly indebted to the skeletal drum machines of electro-duo Suicide. Face Control, the new record by Handsome Furs (Alexei Perry and Dan-from-Wolf-Parade), sounds like Born in the USA, if the Boss had allowed a little more evil in the mix, and tried replicating Alan Vega’s demented yelps. Yeah, it’s THAT good...
What comes across immediately, is Dan Boeckner’s urgency. After all, it’s been less than a year since Wolf Parade’s magnificent second record, and only a little over a year since the Handsome Furs’ own debut. The drum-machines and handclaps, here, are what you’d expect on home demos, there only ever seems to be one guitar growling behind the keyboards, and the lyrics and three-chord melodies are patched together with clichés and hand-me-downs from a dozen well-loved pop-songs. Thing is, it’s the opposite of lazy; it becomes clear you just don’t need that much going on, if you’re a great tunesmith. The old line about great vocalists is that they can sing the phonebook; in Dan’s case, he’d howl like this if he were ordering pizza.
As on the previous H. Furs / W. Parade albums, there may not be a riot, but there’s something of a pagan jeremiad going on. Civilization is crumbling; Eco-geddon is upon us; the commune lifestyle (Dan actually lived) was ideologically flawed, yet we may all be living that way quite soon – these were the themes last time around. Now that Obama’s in, and the notion that “Boom-Bust cycles are inevitable” has been exposed as a monstrous lie... well, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the message is It’s Time to Party!!! The tunes may be Springsteen, but the H. Furs have taken The Beatles affectionate joke at The Beach Boy’s expense (‘Back in the USSR’) and run with it, by splurging on Russian cultural references. Just as protest-songs become entertainment in the grand scheme of things, the political Other is now the 51st State, and the US is the Evil Empire. The former fact may undermine H. Furs’ agenda, but never let it be said that a desperate compulsion to tell it like is spoils a pop-record.
‘Talking Hotel Arbat Blues’ (track 3) is so crisp and catchy it could be Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly, but the dial’s twisted a notch to the weird, with robot handclaps, and a distorted guitar line that’s allowed to keep on ringing way too long for 50s rock’n’roll. “I don’t know but I’ve been told / every little thing been bought and sold // I don’t know but I’ve been told / there’s a guy didn’t get past Face Control…!” Where most of the tunes are worthy of Wolf Parade, but don’t bother with full-band arrangements, the album-closer ‘Radio Kalinigrad’ actually is as dense as anything by Wolf Parade on record, offering up memorably meaningless couplets to yell along at gigs: “Radio Kalinigrad / maybe you will come and admire!!! / Radio Kalinigrad / static on a broken wire!!!”. Don’t kid yourself it’s a profound political statement, any more than REM’s ‘Radio Free Europe’ was a historical one – every alternative band secretly wants to be heard on the radio; some of them just set about imagining a world where that might happen...
When Dan drops in snatches of other lyrics, somehow it doesn’t seem like thieving; more like the moments in an extended live-version, where a singer chucks in tributes to their record collection, for the thrill of becoming their heroes, up onstage. On ‘Thy will be done’ (track 11) we get a nod to Liars: “not so political / nobody cares where you’re from” Even the three short songs that finish inside 90 seconds, and get bracketed on the tracklist, are anything but filler. ‘(White City)’ simply doesn’t need to go on any longer, delivering it’s verse, chorus, and middle-8 with Guided by Voices economy; ‘(Passport Kontrol)’ is a perky instrumental that could have been an outro to a perfectly fine single; ‘(It’s Not Me, It’s You)’ is a glistening, pulsating surge of Eno in search of a U2 song to open. Maybe the next one will have a clearer message, unmuddied by emulation of the commerce it's satirizing, but for now: be glad Handsome Furs couldn’t wait to share these tunes.
8Alexander Tudor's Score