Handsome Furs

Plague Park

(Sub Pop; 2007)

By Peter Hepburn | 29 December 2007

I can see Plague Park making Wolf Parade fans nervous, at least at first glance. Because this debut album from Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner and his electro beat-smith fiancée Alexei Perry is, put simply, very good. That's hardly bad news, but if Boeckner and his Wolf Parade collaborator Spencer Krug are doing work on par with this and Sunset Rubdown’s Shut Up I Am Dreaming (2006), and if both appear set on touring and releasing even more material (Sunset Rubdown's Random Spirit Lover is due in October), then what can we expect from the Canadian quartet that won our hearts in '05? Will they even have anything left in them by the time they get to their sophomore record? Okay: selfish impulse. Back to the matter at hand.

Handsome Furs make it clear from the simple, programmed drums of "What We Had" onward that they are their own animal. Plague Park carves its own path, and succeeds by managing to be close-too-but-not-exactly-like either Wolf Parade or Sunset Rubdown; the band lacks the full-on rock power of the former and avoid the histrionics, jarring edges, and occasional virtuosic musicianship of the latter. This is not to say that there aren't certain similarities, especially in the ability of all three bands to create dramatic tension. It isn't to say that I wouldn't love to hear Wolf Parade lay into the beautiful, anthemic "Sing! Captain" (among others). Rather, Perry's sparse beats and basic backing elements provide the sort of nervous energy that lets Boeckner shine as a lyricist and singer. Which has the side-benefit of making it clear that he stands just as tall a force in the realm of indie rock as Krug.

The formula that Handsome Furs rely on is pretty simple, really: Perry lays down a straightforward drum pattern and a few synth elements; Boeckner plays some guitar (mainly acoustic) and sings. That might seem too minimal or repetitive, but they make it work perfectly for these nine songs. Part of their success is the obvious ear for melody each has, and part is on song construction (they certainly know when to hit the chorus or bring in the guitars). A big element, though, is that they aren't looking to change it up. The band thrives on strain, apprehension, and the slow build that comes from repetition and dissonance. Nowhere do they nail this better than on the droning "Dumb Animals," which is all gloom and thick, dark synth wails. They keep stacking on elements, only to pull it all back for a breath of air two minutes in and then plunge us back in; their grasp of atmospherics is deadly, and they aren't pulling any punches. Following it up with the beautiful "The Radio's Hot Sun" is really the only reprieve they offer.

Of course, the best weapon here is still Boeckner and his fantastic voice. I've written about "Handsome Furs Hate This City" here but the real highlight may be the up-tempo "Cannot Get Started." Boeckner stays restrained over the opening beats, singing of the arms swinging like satellites and the city eating itself, only to really let loose once he kicks in with the guitars in the chorus. There are some weaker moments: "Hearts of Iron" is a bit too long, and "Snakes on the Ladder" (check the de rigueur reptilian references) never really clicks beyond the cool synth backdrops.

For the most part, though, this is one hell of a debut. True, Boeckner's been around for a while, both with Wolf Parade and Atlas Strategic before that, but he's never embarked on a project quite like this one. Plague Park is in many ways a darker, less inviting listen than his previous work. And even if he and Krug never get around to the second Wolf Parade LP (which by all accounts is already well under way), it is good to know that Boeckner will have as much to offer as Krug.