When we last left our Handsome Furs heroes, they were riding high on their second record, “Face Control”. After the moderate mess that was their debut album “Plague Park”, husband and wife team Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry could very well have been considered a second fiddle side project to Boeckner’s main band, Wolf Parade. At the same time, his Wolf Parade bandmate Spencer Krug was snatching all kinds of praise for his other projects Sunset Rubdown and Swan Lake. In other words, Handsome Furs had some work to do, and with “Face Control” they rose to the challenge and made a record that officially deemed them worthy of “main band” rather than “side project” status. It should come as little surprise then that after putting out one more album Wolf Parade has now gone on indefinite hiatus so everybody can do their own things. Handsome Furs are first out of the gate in 2011 with their third album “Sound Kapital”, and once again they’ve worked hard towards making the next leap on the evolutionary scale, this time inspired by their travels around the world.
One of the most admirable things that can be said about Boeckner and Perry is that they are not only consistently challenging themselves but also the ways of our society. Though their own personal political views certainly play something of a role in their lyrics, much of “Sound Kapital” reflects a worldview that is lacking in many aspects of freedom that we take for granted each and every day. Having played shows in countries where leaders or governments dictate everything from the clothes you wear to what type of music you can listen to, Handsome Furs have been inspired by those oppressed who take risks all the time to gain access to the many good things being kept from them. In that same mentality, Boeckner wanted to approach this new record from a different angle than he’d ever tried before, so he put down his guitar and picked up a keyboard. Handsome Furs have always been a guitar and keyboard duo, but with this dual keyboard attack new sounds and influences quickly revealed themselves. Electronica and 80s industrial music form the basis of the new album, which is naturally enveloped in darker moods and themes than before. Things never get quite as bleak or guitar heavy as say Nine Inch Nails circa “Pretty Hate Machine”, but they’re still in the ballpark of a Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, or even a Suicide while still maintaining their own sense of identity. Perhaps what’s most surprising though is just how danceable the whole thing is, with the creative beat structures ripe enough to draw envy from a number of current chart-topping pop artists and fun enough to push for a multitude of remixes. The paradox is fascinating given how these songs push you hard with their energy while bringing you down with their words. What unites these polarizing elements is the overarching themes of humanity and hope, that we’re all in this very real and very present struggle for personal freedom together, and the comfort that can be taken from that.
The pulsating “When I Get Back” kicks “Sound Kapital” into high gear right from the start. The synths sound off like trumpets heralding the arrival of a new age for Handsome Furs, one that’s got nothing but hooks and energy to spare. As blissful of an opener though it may be, at close to 5 minutes it nearly overstays its welcome. Cutting a verse likely wouldn’t have hurt anything. Incorporating actual radio broadcasts from foreign countries into “Damage” is a kitschy touch, but then later having Boeckner’s vocals filtered in the same sort of manner is actually quite intelligent. The frenetic pace at which it clips along blended with an easy to remember chorus only helps as well. Unlike some bands that clearly play their sound for nostalgia purposes, “Memories of the Future” not only sounds like science fiction but its lyrics are nothing but forward thinking. The past is strewn with plenty of conflict, to the point where most of our history classes simply teach about the major wars rather than all the good that gets done. The Handsome Furs vision of the future is a far more peaceful one, where we throw out all notions of the past in an effort to create peace and love in the present. Following that up is a song that plays to the total opposite crowd. “Serve the People” is a scathing indictment of oppressive leadership and how much suffering is caused by dictators and corrupt governments. It’s the singular track that really stands out among a record that tends to flow much smoother than it has any right to be. The reason it stands out, aside from its lyrics, is the slower pace and piano-reverb combination that starts it. The second half of the album is actually where things REALLY take off. The 1-2 punch of “What About Us” and “Repatriated” makes for a knockout in terms of extremely catchy dance tracks. “Repatriated” particularly strikes gold in the way it holds onto a New Order-like groove before carefully building and exploding to a higher level, like so many classic electronica songs have done. The lyrics as well, when paired with “Cheap Music” that follows are about fighting against the strict rules imposed upon people against their will.
Closing out the album is “No Feelings”, a 7-minute sonic mish-mash that seems perfectly normal until 4 minutes in when the guitars finally show up (for virtually the first time on the entire record) and wash away everything in a huge build up of white noise. Of course it all comes back around and balances out before the end, but the point is to be a palate cleanser. It echoes the lyrical theme, which is not about being devoid of emotion but rather viewing the world from a different perspective. You can’t have any feelings about something if you haven’t experienced it before or don’t know anything about it, and in so many ways that also describes Handsome Furs. They’ve once again changed their stripes to help make their most cohesive and easiest to digest record to date. It’s fun and functional and political all at the same time without being too heavy-handed in one direction or the other. Forget what you know about this band, or what you think you know about this band, and turn on “Sound Kapital” with fresh ears ready to experience anything. It’s wonderful to hear Boeckner and Perry finally making some serious strides and continuing to help us forget that Wolf Parade might never return. At this point it might be best for everyone involved. If there’s a gripe to be had about this record it’s how overly smooth and easy on the ears it is. You come away feeling so much better vs. their debut “Plague Park”, but that odd fish of a record was at least an attempt to push into some newer territory. For all their anti-nostalgia/look to the future rhetoric, it’s tough to listen to “Sound Kapital” and not think about classic bands and classic albums. This record may hang in good company with them, but wholly innovative it is not. Hopefully with their next one they can bring back some of the chutzpah. Then again, with three records that are markedly different from one another, who knows what they’ll have in store for their fourth.