4.5 out of 5 stars
Have you ever wondered why people are so unnerved by the concept of public surveillance in the form of cameras and wiretapping, yet never hesitate to partake in the process of self-monitoring through Facebook and blogs? Have you ever experienced the frustrating feeling of disconnectedness as a result of communicating through technology that can’t encapsulate pure human emotion?
These are the things that the members of Handsome Furs — husband and wife Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry — ponder while on tour in countries that don’t necessarily contain vast crowds of indie-rock enthusiasts. Boeckner and Perry perform in these foreign places to draw creative inspiration from alien cultures firsthand. But their journeys are not just for kicks — they spark ideas for future recordings. The Furs’ 2007 debut Plague Park, for example, was influenced by a trip to a mass grave of the same name in Helsinki, Finland.
Russia is the locale of choice for the conception of Face Control, the Furs’ second studio release. The album’s title refers to a practice utilized in the Russian club scene: A person must pay in advance (through a PayPal account) to potentially gain access to a nightclub, but must be approved by someone at the door based on quality of appearance. In effect, the person becomes an object — a mere pawn to satisfy another’s standards.
No song on the album expresses this concept of materialism run rampant better than “Talking Hotel Arbat Blues.” The melody is initially reminiscent of Joan Jett’s garage-rock hit “Bad Reputation,” but it takes on a life of its own when the refrain of “I don’t know what I’ve been told / Every little thing has been bought and sold” bursts in backed by a humbling guitar line and a pulsating bass drum heartbeat. The simplicity of the first refrain is absent the second time around as a confusing mess of distortion leads to a cliffhanger ending.
“(Passport Kontrol)” picks up on the leftover momentum of “Arbat Blues,” acting as a wordless epilogue to its predecessor. Its whining synthesizers make for an uneasy listen. The ideas from “Arbat Blues” beg for reflection and evoke a troubling question: What if the concept of Russian face control were brought to the border of countries and prevented people from boarding flights because their appearance wasn’t exactly what a country was looking for? The idea might seem ridiculous and relatively inconceivable, but it forces an active consciousness about the surveillance that people accept every day without question.
Boeckner obviously has some grievances with the world around him and the people that run it, but at no time does he appear preachy or political. He conjures up obscure thoughts that force people to think about their surroundings through a different lens than they previously had.
On “All We Want, Baby, Is Everything,” and “Nyet Spasiba,” The Furs flex their pop muscles with danceable drum beats, layers of seductive synths and guitar lines that will latch onto your musical consciousness for hours, if not days. These upbeat tracks are especially refreshing considering the esoteric, sonic realm that Boeckner’s other band, Wolf Parade, often treads in. Without bandmate Spencer Krug holding him in check, Boeckner is free to express his inner pop star to any extent he wants.
Throughout the album, Boeckner’s vocals consistently rise above the occasional mess of frenetic synthesizers and clamorous guitars to produce a lasting impression. The assertive and vibrant vocals are exhibited on closer “Radio Kaliningrad,” which captures all the elements that make Face Control such an impressive album: thought-provoking lyrics (“I know you love me baby / I know your heart is just a little dry” and “We’re all just waiting for the future and uranium / and sleeping in the all red sky / You can wait outside”), synthy experimentation balanced by conventional guitar parts and a danceable yet listenable beat.