Music

Handsome Furs: Plague Park

Spin it on your stereo late one night in a dark, empty room, and you may find that its pervasive despondence will mingle with your disappointment, your exhaustion, your heartbreak, and somehow make you feel just a little bit better.


Handsome Furs

Plague Park

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2007-05-22
UK Release Date: 2007-06-18
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What is "good" music? It is impossible to define, but many agree that good music is so because it strikes a certain human emotion within the listener; something about its sound affects us so deeply that we are compelled to continue listening. But more than just emotion, good music also seems to be ideal for some scenario, and thus weaves its way beyond emotions into our actual physical presence. Whether it be a wild rave, an intimate dinner party, or a gigantic arena, it seems that most good music sounds best when played in a certain setting. Plague Park, the freshman release by Handsome Furs, a duo made of Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner with Alexei Perry, is such an album. When listened to with friends in a car or at a club, it might come off as repetitive or monotonous. But, simply put, those are not the scenarios this album was meant for.

Come home, late, from a night of tense arguments with a loved one or exhausted from a full day of whining coworkers and uptight bosses. Disgusted with the world, tired of your broken heart, feeling empty and cold, flip this disc on. Immediately, the opening "What We Had", with its hollow percussive noises in the background and Boeckner's terse, strained vocals, will mirror your feelings. Because there are times when we need a song to pick us up, to make us love the world and love our life and dance around in the sun. But other times we don't need a pick-me-up, we just need something to confirm our thoughts that life is shit. It is an album like Plague Park, melancholy and sad and plaintive, that meets this need: through synthesized drones and static cymbals it fills up the empty space of a lonely evening.

The disc is relatively short, clocking in at not much past half an hour. But while listening it seems much lengthier. The band's own website states, "the point of this duo was to be as sparse and repetitive as possible," and sparse it is -- each song is no more than vocals, guitar, and drum machine loops. The album is astonishingly heavy, however; not in the sense of loud and noisy, but in the sense that each track feels weighed-down, never hurried or rushed. The song's structures are simple, which contributes even more to the album's weight in that every harmonic event is important, because it is rare.

"Dumb Animals" is the album's best track, and begins with cymbals and repeated guitar strums. Each chord change seems to possess a certain weight and power, as if it was a struggle just to get there. Amid the churning, automatic rhythmic figures and synthesized beats, Boeckner's voice is strikingly real, astonishingly human: "The stars are so high", he says, before the mood elevates from one of detached melancholy to one of immediately urgent pain.

On the whole, the album is sad without being tragic, modest in its aching and humble in its pursuit of emotion. It never really cries out about its pain, but instead subtlety expresses to the listener its sorrow. On "Handsome Furs Hate This City" we hear, "Life is long / And hard" repeated several times. In many cases, woe-is-me lyrics come off as self-indulgent, but Handsome Furs complaints are instead self-effacing. They are not pleading for sympathy, but rather offering something we can all relate to.

In the wrong atmosphere, Plague Park is redundant and lethargic. But spin Plague Park in the right setting, on your stereo late one night in a dark, empty room, and you may find that its pervasive despondence will mingle with your disappointment, your exhaustion, your heartbreak, and somehow make you feel just a little bit better.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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