Listening to Handsome Furs’s Face Control is the equivalent of flipping through a brilliant writer’s notebook: You might be intrigued by a few of the better ideas, but only someone already strongly convicted of the artist’s talents would read the thing cover to cover. Wolf Parade is widely seen as Spencer Krug’s group, but two of the best tracks from their outstanding debut, “Modern World” and “Same Ghost Every Night,” were written and sung by Dan Broeckner, who fronts this side project. All the more surprising, then, that the 40-minute Face Control should prove such a tedious listen.
And the good ideas—well, sometimes they’re even excellent. Here teamed with wife Alexei Perry, Broeckner focuses on minimal, atmospheric pop-craft. Clattering, programmed beats dominate the mix on every track, with guitar work that needles and upbraids or sometimes augments the spare arrangements with bent notes and muffled wails. If the music is distancing, so too are Broeckner’s ragged, throaty vocals. He slurs out slogans for the disaffected, and they’re mostly pretty clever slogans at that. For about 90% of the record-buying public, this might be either too clinical or too abrasive, but if you like your pop moody and confrontational, you’ll dig the Furs’s sound.
“All We Want, Baby, Is Everything” provides the only break from the minimalist melancholia. It’s a synth-laden, shimmering track that manages to capture both alienation and optimism. Aside from the vocals, which are pretty far from Brent Sumner’s boyish croon, it could be a great lost New Order track circa Power, Corruption, and Lies. But the song is followed by the only so-so “I’m Confused,” after which Face Control seems to run out of fresh ideas entirely.
“Officer of Hearts,” for example, revolves around a bright synth hook, which is supposed to hold together nearly six minutes of meandering choruses and bridges. Its inclusion hurts the album’s second half, but not nearly so much as “Nyet Spasiba,” “Thy Will Be Done,” and “Radio Kaliningrad”—a collective 12 minutes that don’t attempt anything that wasn’t done better on one of the first five songs. They evidence the Furs’s superb grasp of how to create an intriguing sonic space with minimal instrumentation, but that space is never filled out with a compelling melodic or lyrical theme. Add to that the trio of short interludes scattered throughout and you’ve got half the album’s runtime comprised of songs that don’t sound release-ready. Fans of off-kilter pop will enjoy at least a few of the stronger cuts, but too much of Face Control sounds like the unfinished blueprint of a much better album.