Thursday, March 12, 2009

Handsome Furs: Face Control

Handsome Furs:
Face Control
March 10, 2009 10:35 AM
Handsome Furs

Face Control

Rating: 3.5

Label: Sub Pop

buy it at insound!

Ah, that cruel bitch known as the side project. Like the lure of the siren's song, it pulls musicians into its embrace, nuzzles them gently, whispers seductions into their ears and then systematically murders their hard-fought reputation. At its worst, the side project album often comes across as nothing more than an opportunity for artists to indulge their most inflated and overindulgent whims, outside the confines of their full-time band. Of course there are exceptions - Shearwater has gone from an Okkervil River offshoot to a unique and highly original group in its own right, thanks to recent album Rook - but far too often these side projects are ultimately disappointing and carry the stink of being little more than vanity releases.

Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner has so far mostly managed to avoid these pitfalls. Though his side gig known as Handsome Furs, its core consisting of Boeckner and poet-fiancée Alexei Perry, hasn't surpassed his work with those indie darlings, it hasn't hurt his credibility either or led to much fan backlash. Debut album Plague Park was executed well enough, with an emphasis on synthesizers, sparse arrangements, drum machines, and programmed beats. Despite its nine songs occasionally sounding redundant and plodding - monotony reared its ugly head perhaps a bit too much - it offered a nice divergence from Wolf Parade's more frenetic style.

These shortcomings are mostly absent on Face Control. Although the album's approach isn't a dramatic shift from Plague Park, it does add more instrumentation and, thank Christ, changes of pace to the mix. For the most part the songs are more musically varied than those from the debut album, with guitars, shifting tempos, and even a few instrumentals thrown in to complement (or offset, take your pick) the band's foundation of synths and programmed rhythms. The songs are more diverse and interesting than those from Plague Park; only the minimalism of "Legal Tender," "Nyet Spasiba" and "I'm Confused" is immediately reminiscent of that debut effort. "Evangeline" works in some jagged stabbing guitars on top of all those damn synthesizers, with Boeckner's yelping voice more restrained than it is in his Wolf Parade guise. Both "Talking Hotel Arbat Blues" and "All We Want, Baby, Is Everything" are defined by their shifts in rhythm and tempo, with each song relying more on guitars than synths and drum machines. Though sometimes the songs blend together, only one track, the nearly six-minute "Officer of Hearts," is endlessly repetitive and seems much longer than its already ADD-challenging running time. The lyrics mine familiar subjects: the dehumanizing effects of technology, crass commercialism, isolation in an impersonal world, and a general feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction. "Every little thing has been bought and sold," Boeckner says in "Talking Hotel Arbat Blues," which seems an appropriate summation of the album's lyrical approach.

For those few remaining people still interested in album aesthetics and packaging - and I know one of you is out there - the album cover is, well, appallingly bad. An open-mouthed foaming Doberman is set against a red background, with the band's name and album title along the top in a greenish color somewhat reminiscent of snot. Maybe there's some type of inside joke going on here, who knows; but if you're ever looking for an example of the content not matching the packaging, look no further. It's an early favorite for worst album cover of 2009.

Nevertheless, its music is what makes Face Control a worthy release and an improvement over Plague Park. Even better, Boeckner manages to survive this side project with his Wolf Parade reputation still intact.


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