2011 Sub Pop
Until very recently, I was in a bit of a rut with my video games. It started with me playing Red Dead Redemption, a game which has garnered much critical ballyhoo and even a little bit of hullabaloo. Well, the truth is it’s an all right game, I suppose. But it chose some inopportune moments to get buggy on me and the end was artificially padded to the point that I almost decided not to finish it (seriously – and there’s a spoiler in here, if you give shit – toward the end of the game, while you’re busy waiting for the sudden and inevitable betrayal to come, you have to shoot some crows to protect your corn. And if you don’t shoot enough of them in a short enough amount of time, you fail the “mission” and have to redo it. This is not some optional side quest, mind you – you have to do it to get to the end of the fucking game!). But I did finish it, I quite enjoyed the actual end of the game, and then thought I’d go for something more lighthearted and fun; so I picked up Dead to Rights: Retribution (I call this time my “dead” phase of video gaming)… and put it down barely an hour in when I realized that it is probably the worst video game I’ve played in the last three years. Poor design, wonky combat, having to walk around the same two or three levels over and over again. It’s a game that tends to show naked contempt for you as a player of video games. Take heart – I got it for free. So but anyway, after Dead to Rights: Retardation, I started to wonder if maybe there was something wrong with me. Like maybe I just suddenly didn’t like video games as much as I used to.
And then I played Gears of War 2. Holy shit. Yes, the plot is brick stupid, but the combat is deliciously visceral, easy to manage, and you get to chainsaw your way out of a giant fucking worm. I don’t think I’m a third of the way through the game and it has already very kindly assured me that yes, goddammit, I loves me some video games. Turns out I only like the good ones. Gears of War 2, whatever else it is, is a helluva lot of fun. And it’s fun almost immediately.
Which brings me to why I’m even talking about video games in a Bollocks! post in the first place: the new Handsome Furs album, Sound Kapital, was the perfect album to come along for me right when I was remembering how much fun video games can be when they’re not made with a seething disdain for the people who play them. Like Gears of War 2, Sound Kapital is immediately entertaining. Unlike my current video game of choice, however, Sound Kapital mixes a heavy dose of substance with its entertainment.
If there’s one theme I’ve found consistently in the two Handsome Furs albums that I own – I also highly recommend 2009’s Face Control – it’s that of people working way harder than Americans (and, presumably, Canadians) have to in order to hear or play music. Face Control was influenced by Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry’s trip around Eastern Europe, learning about underground clubs and radio stations like Serbia’s B92, a radio station that audaciously smuggled the truth out of that country when Slobodan Milošević was busy waging genocide there. Supporting that album apparently led the Handsome Furs to Burma in 2010, where public rock shows are strictly forbidden by the military fucks who run that country.
You can read Alexei Perry’s wildly entertaining version of events here but I’ll just summarize everything this way: last year, the Handsome Furs took one helluva risk to bring music to people who were taking one helluva risk by putting on a show and the best part is that Perry and Boeckner donated their proceeds to help their Burmese opening band (Side Effect, name-checked in the Sound Kapital highlight “Serve the People”) fund the recording of an album. For those of you keeping score at home, this is not only one hundred percent virtuous rock star behavior, it’s fucking awesome human behavior.
An adventure like that would have an impact on anybody, and the influence of the Furs’ visit to Burma (I will not call it fucking Myanmar, that’s what the assholes wanna call it) can be felt all over Sound Kapital. So once more, we have awesome songs about people risking their necks to hear music (the international garage anthem “Cheap Music” and the aforementioned “Serve the People”) and once more, the political themes of the record stem from the personal struggles of the people who inspired the music.
And what awesome, infectious, ragged-ass pop music it is! Where Face Control had a few unnecessary bits, Sound Kapital is fit and trim at nine tracks, at least five of which can be classified as “Fucking Awesome.” In case you’re wondering, the remaining four are still “pretty fucking great,” and are growing on me rapidly. In short, Sound Kapital is quickly becoming one of my favorite albums of 2011. It’s a stunning example of the marriage of style and substance that Talib Kweli was talking about earlier this year.
Part of what I have loved about that last two Handsome Furs records is also what I have loved about Wolf Parade pretty much since “This Heart’s On Fire” and that’s the fact that Dan Boeckner doesn’t seem capable of writing a song that isn’t at least a little bit anthemic. It’s in his fucking blood. When he sings, “Nostalgia never really meant that much to me” on “Memories of the Future,” I feel like I’m hearing a mantra. Of course, this could be due in part to the fact that I’ve recently been bombarded with forwarded emails and Facebook statuses from friends that romanticize the past to an almost willfully ignorant degree (seriously, you know who’s nostalgic for the 50s and 60s? Privileged white men. I’ve never met a black dude who thinks shit was better back in the Eisenhower administration). But the phrase is couched in such hypnotically head-nodding music that the whole package sometimes comes across as a message from the future to stop living in the past (Boeckner even sings, “I have seen the future/ I will never be repatriated” on the appropriately titled “Repatriated”).
I should also point out that it takes a special talent for someone to use synthesizers as much as the Handsome Furs do without pissing me off (Wolf Parade was also capable of this. If Expo 86 was their swan song, it was one helluva way to go out). Synths appear on, I think, every Handsome Furs song and I find myself loving it. I never believed synthesizers were inherently evil, mind you, but I know that they’re very infrequently used for good. Sound Kapital is a case where they’re used for awesome, especially on “Repatriated” and my current favorite track “Bury Me Standing.”
In my post about Face Control, I mentioned that people like the staff of B92 were exactly the sort of people who ought to be celebrated in rock songs. The same is true of bands like Side Effect and all the people who helped the Handsome Furs put on their show in Yangon. That the Furs choose to celebrate people like this in songs that so frequently make my dopamine reward pathway light up like Times Square is a reason to celebrate them as one of the most promising bands working right now.