Most educators, including myself, try our best to grade tests and assignments with an unbiased eye. To aid this process, a lot of teachers will grade tests back-to-front, so the student’s name is the last thing they see, rather than the first. I like to approach my reviews the same way. At first, I like to let the music do the talking and not look at any press releases enclosed, their website or MySpace, or even delving into the CD booklet. However, sometimes you can’t help making out a student’s chicken scratch handwriting or notice commonly made mistakes and put two and two together. On the opposite side of that coin, when a test turns out perfect the teacher can usually guess one of the class brainiacs. Of course, there are always exceptions and surprises, pleasant or unpleasant.
When I put in the Handsome Furs disc, I couldn’t help but notice the Sub Pop logo, and frankly that’s why I chose it. (Okay, I’m a little biased.) Listening to the first track I heard drum machine, synthesizer, a dirty guitar line and a voice that sounded oh-so-familiar. “This dude sounds like the one singer from Wolf Parade,” I said. Turns out I nailed it: Handsome Furs are Dan Boeckner and his fiancée Alexei Perry, who is a writer.
These songs would fit easily as interjections or interludes into the next Wolf Parade album, but they stand firmly on their own as well. With Boeckner’s voice carrying the project and Perry not contributing vocally, it can’t help but sound like Wolf Parade. They both cover the synths, while he plays guitar and she does the programming. That would be the main difference here; the Furs use strictly drum machine -- no live drums -- as well as that quite a few songs are acoustic based. The lyrics seem to have similar tones to WP, too, not that I’m a great lyrical analyst or anything.
Most of the tempos here are pretty slow; this is not some dance party techno thing. “Hearts of Iron” fits this groove, and works well with Boeckner's vocals going in and out of double-tracking for a cool effect. “Handsome Furs Hate This City” starts out in a slow 6/8 sway lead by the synth arpeggios, but three-some minutes in, the drum machine starts pounding in 4 and the song shifts to one of the few dancey moments with sustained guitar and the crashing of fake cymbals.
Though my absolute favorite Wolf Parade songs are Spencer Krug material (“You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son,” “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts”), Boeckner contributed exactly half the material to their debut full-length and is therefore a big part of the reason I put it at #5 for my 2005 list. His “Shine a Light” and “It’s a Curse” were especially great. After going back and reading the press stuff I feel kinda bad because in a Pitchfork interview he described the Furs as “basically Wolf Parade without the guy that everybody likes and no real instruments.” Whoops. I like you too, Dan!
“Dead + Rural” caught me immediately and continues to be a favorite because it is the most dancey and uptempo without garnering the label of Postal Service ripoff, which so many indie electronic acts are fairly or unfairly called since Gibbard struck gold with that formula. This one’s got a Jesus and Mary Chain remix vibe, mostly due to the guitar tone, which is awesome. In reading up, Boeckner says the song was born from a cover they did early on of Liars “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack,” which they had only heard a few times and knew little of the words. Not hearing the connection, but okay! “Cannot Get Started” is another good track and has one of the catchiest vocal melodies on this mellow album.
Although I am a drummer, I don’t hate drum machines. Even with that said, my favorite moments in this album are when the beats cool off because they seem a little intrusive at times. For example, the lengthy “Dumb Animals” has a few sections where the drum machine simply keeps time with hi-hat quarter notes, leaving just Boeckner’s guitar and vocals, which at two minutes in, are at their most captivating on a disc that draws too much attention to the electronics. Then there’s closer “In the Radio’s Hot Sun” which has no drum machine, just an honest-to-goodness tambourine along with the acoustic guitar and a light synth line. I wish more of the album was like that.
Now, most of what I’ve said has been positive, and I always like to look for the positive. However, 40-50% of this album passes by without much notice. There are a lot of good moments, but mainly it just makes me want the new Wolf Parade album to come out. But it’s a solid effort and worth checking out for WP fans and electronic enthusiasts.