On their 2006 debut, Plague Park, Handsome Furs were a (way) softer version of Suicide crossed with Bruce Springsteen. Epic, bleacher-reaching hooks were grounded by spartan drum-machine patterns and synth lines. The duo -- Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade and his now-wife, Alexei Perry -- was content to set the machines to “glacial” and hope the fireworks would come from Boeckner’s totemic guitar riffs. Sometimes they did, but too often they didn’t. That’s not the case on Handsome Furs’ sophomore album, the much-improved Face Control. The synths are bigger and the drum patterns less frigid, and Boeckner delivers some of his best hooks and riffs to date.
A vague Soviet milieu informs Face Control, which has a loose story of lovers trying to escape the oppressiveness of a totalitarian government. But this isn’t a 1984-referencing Berlin Wall epic. Face Control is, first and foremost, a collection of great electro-rock songs.
Opener “Legal Tender” begins with a Morse code beat and slowly builds with panning synths sketches. Boeckner mostly stays out of the way, piling layers of his voice over the beat and cutting a searing hole in the middle of the song with a guitar solo. The first single, the taut “I’m Confused,” features guitar work similar to the twin tone epics on Wolf Parade’s last outing, and “Thy Will Be Done” sways like an R&B track. The fuzzy “Radio Kaliningrad” sounds like a radio transmission, with Boeckner playing the role of manic talking head trying to convey his message. The album’s highlight, “All We Want, Baby, Is Everything,” is the pair’s best musical statement to date. Perry heaps on skittering and gaping layers until the song is as big as a mountain, while the track eventually comes off like a nuanced nod to New Order at their most introspective (it actually features a sample from "Temptation").
Face Control is a refinement of every facet of Handsome Furs’ minimal sound, principally that the music here has a soul, while Plague Park sounded clinical and procedural. There’s an emotional heft here that wasn’t present before. A lot of that has to do with Perry, who seems like a more integral member this time out. It’s her providing the slithering musical fireworks on “Officer of Hearts,” and it’s her starring in the album’s three mostly ambient expansive interludes.
When Plague Park was released, it was all too easy to pigeonhole Handsome Furs as nothing but a vanity project that could occupy Boeckner so he didn’t have to sit on his hands waiting for Spencer Krug (who is always busy doing Sunset Rubdown and Swan Lake records) to get back to cut another Wolf Parade record. Face Control ought to dispel that notion.