So Dan Boeckner and his wife, Alexei Perry, are touring Eastern Europe as Handsome Furs and they’re talking to people about life under communism, etc. Boeckner told The Villager about meeting people who were “illegally importing bands into these countries and running clubs with no money and building all their equipment themselves”. Boeckner and Perry were moved by these people’s “tenacious attchment to promoting music, whether it’s gonna make money or not” – so moved, in fact, that they began writing Face Control on that very tour. Coming home to an increasingly right-wing Canadian government and the last days of GW Bush in the U.S. helped add the proper dash of modern paranoia to the mix and the result is a simple (at first) sounding pop record that celebrates music’s ability to lift our spirits even when the powers that be are out to crush them.
That said, nothing on Face Control is all that overt – these are songs about people, and they’re rock songs. Boeckner recognizes that to the real authoritarians out there, rock ‘n’ roll itself is a threat. Anything that’s fun for the kids, anything that gets ’em all sweaty and huggy, is intolerable to most types of dogmatic people, be they religious fundamentalists or revolutionary dictators. Sure, the Clash (whom Boeckner quite rightly praises in the Villager article) sang overtly political tunes, but they also sang “Lover’s Rock,” the first song I know of to suggest cunnilingus as an effective means of birth control. This is probably why Face Control‘s best moments are upbeat rockers like “Talking Hotel Arbat Blues” with its gleeful bass drum stomp (courtesy of Perry) and Boeckner’s shouting “Baby’s outta step with the occupation.” Boeckner adds, “I don’t know/ but I’ve been told/ every little thing’s been bought and sold” just in case you forgot that the narrators of Face Control‘s songs are living under a cloud of oppression and censorship.
In the Villager article (linked here – you should check it out. It’s brief but informative), Boeckner takes a moment to pan indie acts who are dressing up love songs in what he refers to as Dungeons & Dragons metaphors while their continent is plunging into economic ruin caused by nearly a decade of fuck-awful leadership. Boeckner is talking about basically walking a highwire over two pits – one is the Preachy Band pit, where even my hero Billy Bragg is wont to fall (one of my friends summed up Bragg’s entire catalogue once by shouting in an off-key cockney accent, “I don’t like the government.” I was hard-put to argue with him). The other is, to borrow a phrase from Mr. Boeckner, the “bleached-out, ’60s Eagles” Pit. (*cough*Fleet Foxes*cough*). Face Control walks the line pretty well, delivering the rousing “Talking Hotel Arbat Blues” and the beautiful “All We Want, Baby, is Everything,” where Boeckner sings, “Heaven was a place we built out of stone.”
Face Control has been panned by some critics for sounding a like a tossed-off, done-in-a-weekend sort of project, and it does kinda have that sound to it, but whether that’s good or bad is in the ear of the beholder. I happen to like that the album feels that way – it makes me feel like Boeckner and Perry had a sense of urgency about making the music, which suggests that, just as music helped people deal with the atrocities of communism (and, despite what Bob Avakian might have you believe, there is not one communist regime in history that hasn’t censored, persecuted, and trampled the rights of the people they’ve claimed to be helping), perhaps music is helping Canadians Boeckner and Perry deal with the fact that their PM suspended Parliament just as they were finishing the album. Immediacy alone is not reason enough to like an album (sorry, Neil Young. I like that you did Living with War more than I like how it sounds), but the songs on Face Control are quite strong and usually pretty catchy.
The album closes with a song called “Radio Kalininbrad,” which the Villager suggests is alluding to radio station B92 in Serbia, a station that snuck factual reports about Slobodan Milosevic’s crimes out to international news outlets. Boeckner and Perry met with staffers from the radio station who were routinely persecuted by the Milosevic government. Despite being shut down repeatedly, Boeckner credits B92 with helping to get protests going in Belgrade and calling attention to the ethnic cleansing that was going on there at the time. These are the people who need to be celebrated in rock songs and Handsome Furs do them a great honor on Face Control.