The second album by this Montreal band draws inspiration from Eastern Europe and re-maps Eastern Bloc surveillance state themes to contemporary life, showing the irony of our acceptance of self-monitoring through blogs, credit/debit accounts, surveillance cameras, and GPS devices. The album's juxtaposition of cold, metronomic, electronic beats with jagged, dissonant and frail guitars convey what it is to be human in the 21st century. At the same time, it provides the means to opt out.
The trouble with Plague Park, the 2007 debut LP from the then-betrothed duo Handsome Furs, was that it never sounded like anything but a side project. And I suppose it was; chances are, if you know Handsomer Fur Dan Boeckner, you know him as co-marshal of Wolf Parade. More than that, though, Plague Park was far too long on mood and entirely too spare with the nervy buildups and outsized choruses Boeckner's provided to his parent band's records. What Plague lacked in focus it made up in atmosphere and the odd killer hook, but it was an oddly dispassionate album for a couple of young lovers, and it did little more than make one wish Wolf Parade would get on with it already.
In the couple of years since Plague Park, Wolf Parade issued the intriguing but ultimately underwhelming At Mount Zoomer and Boeckner got himself properly hitched to Alexei Perry, also his partner in Handsome Furs. The two found a little time in between merging their checking accounts and posing for increasingly salacious press photos to craft Face Control, and boy, the sound committed now. On every conceivable level down to the cover art, Face Control bests its predecessor, adding stuttering nuance to their previously too-spare sound, which they drape over some of the finest songs Boeckner's ever written.
The Furs' greatest songwriting strength is their ability to imbue a select line or two with a terrific amount of meaning; even when said line could easily turn clich้ in less able hands. Boeckner's proven this time and again with Wolf Parade-- "This Heart's on Fire" ain't exactly a new thought, but a helluva chorus-- and it's a skill the Furs used all too sparingly on Plague Park. "All We Want, Baby, Is Everything" isn't just the title of Face Control's best song; it's the text of the entire hook, and, really, it doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot just sitting there on the page. To hear Boeckner sing it, though-- especially over the effortlessly exultant chiming provided by he and Perry-- you'd swear you knew just what he was on about.
Lyrical inscrutability peppered with the occasional waft of clarity has always been a Boeckner trademark, and Face Control continues that. Disaffection, if not necessarily rage, seems to be directed at the machine this time but Boeckner's well-hewn vocal affectations and the album's sleek, spare veneer lend its lines a palpable sense of dread. There are a few tunes that reference Russia in one way or another, which, coupled with the album's oft-synthetic Glasnost-era sonics, at times suggest a particularly Cold War-borne paranoia, but it's not quite so clear as that; Boeckner and Perry keep their words open enough to invite interpretation without resorting to either nonsense or platitudes, and these easily applicable feelings of dread seem like a good fit for these strange times we find ourselves in.
Fittingly, Face Control is just more than a little addled, due in no small part to the inspired synth work of Ms. Perry and an increased focus on the eerie snap of their drum machine. Where keyboards would float by on Plague Park, they splatter and stain on Face Control, finding the sweet spot between the clattering underpinning and Boeckner's sturdy, sometimes searing guitar. Though they pepper the mix with a lot more stuff this time around, there's a spare, dubby quality to most of the record that smacks of fellow minimalists Spoon. All the more appropriate a setting for allowing Boeckner's impressionistic verses and revelatory choruses to rattle around in your head, I'd say.
Sure, not every song hits quite as hard as the New Order-referencing "All We Want" or the terrific closing twofer "Thy Will Be Done" and "Radio Kaliningrad", and "Nyet Spasiba" shares a bit too much with "All We Want" to be sequenced quite so close together on the disc. Small quibbles, though. What's clear is that Boeckner and Perry ought not break that embrace they're so often captured in; they're clearly a match made in weirdo heaven, and we're nearly as lucky to have them making strange, sumptuous records like Face Control as they appear to be to have each other.
Paul Thompson, March 12, 2009