[10 March 2009]
Face Control is a difficult record to dislike, mostly because it so very rarely comes right out and demands to be liked. Dan Broeckner, freed from the inevitable concessions and dynamics that come from sharing the spotlight with Spencer Krug in Wolf Parade, has crafted a sparse and modest album that cares more about following its own artistic whims than pleasing others outright. And, against conventional logic, this turns out to be a good thing.
Handsome Furs—composed of Broeckner on vocals and guitar, with wife Alexei Perry on synths and drum programming—have always been more about spare, introspective arrangements than the warm, grandiose pop of Wolf Parade, but Face Control finds the duo moving ever further away from the aesthetic that made their parent band such a critical success. From the harsh synths that kick off the opening “Legal Tender”, this album is a far colder, more mechanical affair than its predecessor, Plague Park—though certainly not in a bad way. With their skilled use of negative space and potent hooks echoing off the walls of these sparsely furnished songs, Handsome Furs now resemble a Young Marble Giants who grew up on a diet of good synth pop and figured out how to get that drum machine to, you know, work.
Part of the reason for this paradigm shift lies in Broeckner’s guitar treatment. While Broeckner frequently went acoustic on Plague Park and lent his songs a relatively warm, pastoral feel, this never happens on Face Control. Instead, things remain distorted throughout, and his guitar tone is often the subject of some Martin Hannett-like experimentation with texture, almost becoming a natural, robotic extension of Perry’s synths. This welcome addition to the band’s formula makes for a more fully integrated, compact sound. At times the results can even be stunning, as on the late album standout “Thy Will Be Done”: Broeckner will often achieve almost shoegaze levels of volume, only his tone is treated to the point where it becomes an ethereal haze hanging in the back of the mix, exploring the empty alcoves of a track of its own accord before dropping out entirely.
And when that happens, we’ve got Perry’s synths and beats to look at, and this is where things go ever so slightly south. No one’s expecting synths—even analog ones—to achieve the same sort of improvisational human element as “traditional” instruments (the fact that they don’t is sort of the whole point). But Perry’s synth work mostly just stays the course for the album’s running time, recycling the same pixelated DFA-esque effects. It’s never overtly distracting, and even at its most unintentionally repetitive, it’s still pleasant to listen to. But one can’t help feeling the pangs of some missed opportunities.
But then this album clearly isn’t concerned with becoming a club staple, so the restrained electronics do make sense. With all the empty space quietly permeating most of these tracks, what we’re really expected to be listening to is Broeckner himself—and thankfully, he makes the job fairly easy for us. Just like Win Butler, whose band rose to critical notice about the same time as Wolf Parade, Broeckner’s delivery is an intensely melodramatic one that still manages to evoke a bluesy, working-class swagger: Bowie by way of Springsteen. He manages to sound equally at home in the affectionate New Order worship of “All We Want, Baby, Is Everything” and the soulful foot-stomping of “Talking Hotel Arbat Blues”.
Lyrically, Broeckner also keeps things fairly solid. Of course, there’s nothing too remarkable going on, and he keeps returning to the same ocean and city images, to the point where they feel less like motifs and more like crutches. But if there’s nothing starkly poetic happening, then there’s nothing that will outright offend English majors either. Often the repetition of a simple, powerful phrase like “I’m Confused” over a beautifully spiraling guitar figure can say more than all but the most poetic lyric.
But taken as a whole, Face Control does have at least a few things in common with a good poem: it’s a carefully crafted, modest, personal work that’s as much about purging the demons and anxieties that have been kicking around in the author’s dome as it is about creating something beautiful. If it doesn’t exactly break any exciting new ground musically, if that gorgeous riff from “I’m Confused” is the only thing we remember in a few months’ time, and if it does have its blemishes here or there, you still can’t fault it for wearing its humanity on its sleeve.