From the get-go, Wolf Parade has been beset by a plague of analogies. The band’s 2005 debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, sounded like fellow Canucks the Arcade Fire. Its songwriting team, Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug, pushed and pulled like Lennon and McCartney or Mick and Keith. Boeckner emoted like Springsteen; Krug yelped like Bowie. You’d remember the first time you heard its record just like the first time you heard Modest Mouse. Even the band name sounded like the countless other “wolf” bands roaming 2005’s indie circuit. The similes rapidly turned into cliches, the cliches into common knowledge — such is the nature of the media.
The quirky Handsome Furs — composed of Boeckner and his fiance Alexei Perry — pose new challenges for the comparison-hungry press. Have Boeckner and Perry become the Lennon and Ono for the twenty-first century and Wolf Parade the sorely-neglected super-group? Does the duo’s name signify some new vogue for “fur” bands leveraged by Jeff Tweedy’s own Loose Fur, a similar side project from his super-group Wilco? Does Boeckner’s foray into minimalist electronica bring to mind the experiments of other, more notable songwriters — say, Thom Yorke?
Might I suggest a different line of inquiry? While there are worthy parallels to be drawn here — Boeckner’s ragged guitar certainly suggests Crazy Horse-era Neil Young — Handsome Furs’ real pleasures are to be found in who and what it doesn’t sound like. It’s more interesting, though no more accurate, to view the band apart from the tired rock narratives that have dogged Wolf Parade.
You probably won’t remember the first time you hear Plague Park, but that’s not because Boeckner and Perry have failed or their record’s pleasures are few. It’s simply that their goals are modest and their tools humble. The record’s nine tracks are buffeted almost solely by Boeckner’s elegiac guitar, Perry’s ancient drum machine, and a few keyboards. (Wolf Parade’s drummer, Arlen Thompson, makes only marginal appearances behind the kit.) Yet tracks like “Hearts of Iron” and “Dead + Rural” produce a substantial racket, Boeckner’s weary tenor moaning over airy swathes of bleating drum fuzz and hot organ. Recorded in Wolf Parade’s Montreal studio, Mount Zoomer, Plague Park has the feel of a secret performance in a drafty loft party with only ten kids in knit caps to cheer the couple on. The sharp guitars and bubbling percussion rattle unbidden around the cold room.
Such a sonic aesthetic is fitting for an album convinced of the isolation and paranoia haunting modernity. These themes, developed partially in Apologies, are brought to the fore here. Over the soft synth arpeggios tickling “Handsome Furs Hate This City,” Boeckner mumbles that he “Woke up with blankets and buildings with jaws” before affirming that “Life is long and hollow.” Later, with the guitars droning and Perry’s synth pounding, Boeckner sounds more harried: “So black out a million screams. Baby, we can get you anything you want, any time you want, but you won’t know what it’s for.” The anti-consumerism is straight from Boeckner’s Wolf Parade tune “Modern World,” but the new song’s rickshaw electronica is worlds away from Wolf Parade’s hearty swagger.
Plague Park delivers on a side-project’s essential promise: that it provide a venue for a band’s prominent artists to explore more experimental territory away from the glare of its hungry fans. I imagine that glare is forthcoming, but for now Handsome Furs simply provides further evidence of Montreal’s vital music scene and a worthy distraction from the Wolf Parade spectacle.