2007 / Music

Review: Handsome Furs’ Debut Should Boost Hype About Canadian Music

Wolf Parade’s Co-Leader Releases Side Project Disc

Come next December, 2007 will likely be remembered as a banner year to be a Canadian rock band.

Photo: Sub Pop Records

Photo: Sub Pop Records

Long written off as a musical as well as cultural backwater to be escaped from, Canada, specifically Montreal, is now headquarters for some of the year’s most-hyped underground rock groups. Indie-rock duo Handsome Furs couldn’t have chosen a better time to make its debut.

As if Montreal didn’t already have enough to lure the sharks of the major record labels and rock press, the Furs’ album, “Plague Park,” is a drop of blood in the water that will give the hype-hunting carnivores more incentive to continue circling for a bite of the next big thing.

Arcade Fire is still perceived as the local scene’s current king of the hill (or three hills in Montreal’s case) and with hip groups like Stars, the Stills and Wolf Parade calling the city home, Montreal has already attained a Seattle-like buzz for starving artists as well as media tastemakers. It’s a good spot to get some exposure.

But like the Montreal music scene itself, Handsome Furs and its debut are more about the potential that they represent than actual accomplishment. “Plague Park” is a very interesting record, but isn’t a “White Blood Cells” that could turn the group, which is a side project consisting of Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner and his girlfriend Alexei Perry, into alternative-rock superstars. Instead, “Plague Park” in many ways should be a vote of confidence in Boeckner and his new partner’s songwriting abilities and bolsters long-held suspicions that Wolf Parade’s best offering is still on the road ahead.

The album’s songs are immediately striking for their dramatic composition. The boys in Wolf Parade are a brainy bunch, but even when chiding consumerism or nerdily laying bare their devotion to someone, Boeckner and company are mostly dedicated to rocking out. On “Plague Park,” however, there’s a less organic and more thoughtful, measured orchestration of the music. The pair’s toolkit is rudimentary — electric/acoustic guitars, keyboards and a drum machine — but they are deployed to take up the maximum amount of space. There’s a clear sense that someone is mapping this out before plugging into the amps.

The most obvious beneficiary of this less frenetic pace is Boeckner’s voice. His singing has obvious nasally parallels to Beck’s vocal style from his “Mutations” and “Sea Change” period and can be just as expressive. The song’s lush instrumentation maximizes this characteristic and a well-placed piano chord or fuzzed ringing of electric guitar deflects attention from any of its limitations. The duo also treats his crooning like any other instrument and carves out a place for it in the greater whole. They bolster its distinctiveness by multi-tracking his voice and sometimes creating a call-and-response with himself. It’s a loving indulgence that only the most vain vocalists would attempt, unless of course, the creator could laugh off embarrassment by saying the disc is just a pet project dreamed up in a basement.

A song like “Dumb Animals,” however, makes it plain that rather than just a sideline diversion, this project has real artistic ambition behind it. Boeckner and Perry methodically build a framework of instruments that slowly envelop and support his emotional, partially mumbled warble. A dull, time-keeping pattern on the drum machine and a two-note guitar strum bloom into a cathedral-filling sound. Funeral keyboards and mysterious piano chords thrust forward and percussion crashes with heart-wrenching Gothic splendor. It’s a song so epic that it’s worthy of their crosstown rivals Arcade Fire.

“Hearts Of Iron” isn’t as beautifully pretentious, but is just as powerful. This time, a squeaky drum machine kicks off the track that’s led by a laconic,clanging, Neil Young guitar motif. But as Boeckner’s voice enters the first verse, the song’s tone becomes increasingly serious. The lyrics might be filled with random Dail-esque dream imagery of eggs and seas, but the emotional undertones of Boeckner’s vocals slice through the words’ cloudy meaning to express his burning anxiety. This dirge culminates with the odd sound, like the hum of a propeller plane, sailing above the syncopated, guitar racket.

Besides the vocals, the guitars are the most malleable instruments used on “Plague Park.” It is shimmering and shrieking on the intro to “Sing! Captain” before ceding to an acoustic guitar. The electric guitar then re-emerges with some stabbing power chords to punctuate key points as a Moog-like organ sways along.

The record’s temperament is unflinchingly dreary but does lighten for two cuts when Boeckner and Perry program in uptempo disco beats. “Dead + Rural” utilizes a pulsating groove that New Order might have employed in the mid-’80s, but shards of frazzled guitar and jagged keyboard hissing keep it firmly in line with the Stone Roses instead of Studio 54. The Prince-ly funk of “Cannot Get Started” blurs this dividing line. An electric piano, acoustic guitar licks and the broad, distorted swath left from a guitar aligns the track with Beck’s faux-funk experiments on “Midnite Vultures.”

The disc’s most powerful moment might also prove to be unconsciously prophetic. The track, “Handsome Furs Hate This City,” might become reality should the music industry continue to assail the town in search of the next Arcade Fire whom they can convert into a Coldplay. Perhaps Boeckner and Perry are singing about late-night cruising or maybe grocery shopping, but you don’t need a vivid imagination to take bleak, pessimistic lines like “life is long and hollow” and “Baby, we can get you anything you want … but you won’t know what it’s for” and see a nightmare in which the pair witness their artistic haven in Montreal turned into a hovel. Exposure can be a good thing. Overexposure will kill it.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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