Handsome Furs’ debut, Plague Park draped Alexei Perry’s programmed drums and synthesizers in her partner Dan Boeckner’s shaggy, distorted guitars and emotive singing. Like some science experiment in currents and thermal drafts, the band’s sound flowed hot and cold, but the warmth floated to the top. Face Control, by contrast, places stylish, strobe-lit club beats at the forefront. Boeckner’s guitar flares in brief, arena-aspiring moments, but mostly stays in check. The whole vibe is cleaner, clearer and less fraught with human feeling than the debut. It’s a restless, twitchy, uncomfortable dance party, concerned primarily with sharp rhythms and slick surfaces. It is, overall, very early 1980s.
In fact, it’s probably no accident that Handsome Furs borrowed heavily from New Order’s “Temptation” for its not-quite-a-cover “All We Want, Baby, Is Everything.” (The debt was so substantial that Handsome Furs had to clear their version with New Order, setting back the release date for Face Control by several weeks.) That was, after all, the single in which New Order threw off the baggage from Joy Division and set out, considerably lightened, for happier, more electronically-driven dance floors. And perhaps that’s what Handsome Furs is up to – throwing off the turgid, mood-swinging pyrotechnics of Montrealean guitar pop and stripping down to clipped hand-claps, synthetic snares and keyboards.
All of which would be fine, preferable even, if the two of them sounded the least bit comfortable under the mirror ball. Boeckner, in particular, seems to be struggling against constraints. With “Legal Tender,” his singing breaks into Springsteen-ish anthemic climaxes. “Evangeline” with its steady pace and flares of loud guitar, hits a certain Constantines-esque level of drama. And his guitar playing, especially on the brief, wonderful “It’s Not Me, It’s You” is an arena-sized approximation of the Edge – better U2, really, than anything on No Line on the Horizon. But there is just not enough air in the room for this kind of flame-out. His most dramatic gestures always seem to risk knocking things over or upsetting the carefully calibrated chill.
The album’s elements – large scale pop and tightly controlled electro – don’t always work together, but they come together on the very last track, “Radio Kaliningrad.” Here, a whip-shot snare rhythm lashes forward, its coldness meshing with searing guitar. Its imagery is apocalyptic, with repeated references to uranium and sleeping under orange skies, but the main subject is longing, missed connections and hopes for later reunion. It’s one song that doesn’t underestimate human feeling, even in a threatening and mechanical setting, and it’s all the better for it.