2007 / Music

Review: Indie-Rock Group Stars Almost Lives Up To Name

Acclaimed Canadian Band Ramps Up Sonic Ambitions

The best kinds of stories are the ones without easy, Disney-commissioned happy endings.

Photo: Arts & Crafts

Photo: Arts & Crafts

While we all might nod approvingly when a villain gets his or her comeuppance or beam when an underdog triumphs over adversity, there’s something about a tragedy that seems to make the most meaningful connection.

Canadian drama-rock combo Stars would likely admit to having a soft spot in their hearts for sad stories. On their newest record, the band has drawn together a series of satisfyingly unhappy endings, and in the process, crafted an album that perfectly embodies a scenario where the protagonist narrowly misses their big chance like those found in children’s storybooks.

After quietly wowing many in the hipster nation with their last LP, 2005’s “Set Yourself On Fire,” the band now appears tantalizingly close to living up to their name with their latest album. “In Our Bedroom After The War” takes to heart this public vote of confidence in the quintet’s abilities by expanding the group’s musical range. The record lacks the guitar firepower and vocal harmonies that propelled “Fire,” zeroing in instead on rearranging their creative sphere to embrace more ornate compositions than one would expect from an act on a lowly independent rock label. The record shoots the group ever closer toward a mainstream breakthrough, but doesn’t yet seal the deal.

While Stars shares the same passion for incorporating a sense of melodrama and instrumental elegance into indie rock as fellow Montreal-based rock outfit Arcade Fire, the band’s canvas on which its sonic ambitions are displayed is the polar opposite from their better-known buddies’. Arcade Fire’s music is obsessed with grand pageantry and cathedral-sized sounds to rival the music’s intended emotional impact. Stars’ songs are equally romantic and occasionally wistful, but more subtle and tightly focused in implementation. While the new record represents widening musical horizons, the band never loses faith in the pop-song format as the ideal mechanism for delivering its packages of emotional tumult.

“In Our Bedroom After The War” doesn’t just have the musicians packing their songs with instruments, mucking up the arrangements with new and more musical toys. Instead, the band seems to demonstrate a new sophistication and greater sense of maturity. The group pulls in xylophones, New Wave-influenced keyboards and lonely-sounding piano melodies to add depth and color to the tracks. Where the record makes an important error, however, is in acting a bit too mature. The band fails to recognize that maturity isn’t necessarily synonymous with great rock songs. This collection is short a few uptempo numbers.

For awhile, Stars almost gets you to overlook this. Led by singers Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan, the group tries early on to build on their best work, like “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” and “Calendar Girls,” by emphasizing the duo’s vocal chemistry and ability to conveying a sense of longing. “The Night Starts Here” seems perfectly suited to open the record as well as their live show. It’s an invitation in tone as well as lyrically. Instruments individually enter the frame and musical lines gracefully emerge. The two vocalists trade lines early on, which gives an opportunity to compare the qualities of those who will serve as our guides over 13 cuts, before joining together as the track’s melodic rush kicks in. Millan’s singing is breathy and feminine while Campbell’s voice is deeper and more outwardly expressive. The vocals, along with a rumbling keyboard effect, nearly inaudible strings and hasty 4/4 rhythm, give this song a spark that almost makes you forget that it doesn’t have a solid hook.

“Midnight Coward,” in contrast, keeps Campbell and Millan mostly separate to create a boy-versus-girl dynamic. The drumming is insistent and a xylophone instrumental passage is an unusual touch, but the band continues to come up with little in the melody department. As the record progresses, the band keeps making the wrong choice by segregating the two singers. Millan is relegated to support duties on “Take Me To The Riot,” whose big, Bono-sized chorus makes it the record’s best candidate to become a single. Then, it’s Campbell’s turn to play underutilized backup on “My Favourite Book.”

Tracks like “My Favourite Book” offer brief and surprising glimpses of what the band members might have been listening to recently. The joyful, jazz-leaning chorus on “Book” lifts the panning horn portion of Dr. John’s ’70s standard, “Right Place Wrong Time.” Later on, “The Ghost Of Genova Heights” starts with the same drumbeat as ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” but instead of leading into a haze of fuzzy guitar, we get surrounded by some moping keyboards. Campbell’s singing is alluring if still a bit cold and largely inconsequential during the verses. For the chorus, however, he rouses from his sleepwalk behind the microphone and leaps into a Bee Gees-disco falsetto. He gives the song an added dimension, a shading of funkiness that can’t be anticipated early on.

Another jolt of adrenaline comes from “Bitches In Tokyo,” which offers the record’s most sustained burst of furious energy. Millan sounds like a descendant of Ronnie Spector, sweetly calling out for her departed love until she is swept up in a full musical tidal wave. A stilted piano is her only musical support during the verses until some long-hidden guitar/bass riffs and hurried drumming explode. After Millan sings the final chorus, she turns the track over to the band’s instrumentalists, who deliver a mangled guitar freakout that plays off a sputtering keyboard.

In the moment, many of these songs are engaging and enjoyable, but pale when compared to the strength and consistency of the material on “Set Yourself On Fire.” Each cut on that disc was a potential hit for the adventure-seeking music fan, and the new tracks just aren’t be as memorable. One can surmise that Stars might have sacrificed a more pointed musical direction for loftier, musichead goals.

Further cementing the perception that Stars is now indulging its every creative whim, the band packaged a DVD with the album containing a 55-minute documentary. The film follows the band through the recording process for the new album and several live performances and is surprisingly well done. Interspersed between interviews with the principals and tasty concert footage, the filmmakers incorporate some film-school-inspired abstract images that mirror the music’s penchant for instrumental embellishments.

In total, all of these added details and piled-on instruments don’t make for a better record. “In Our Bedroom After The War” leaves listeners at an uncertain period in the Stars story. Right now, an album that is more ambitious and yet doesn’t clearly and consistently surpass its predecessor could be perceived as a blown opportunity. This has all the makings of tragedy, one in which a band that many believe could be indie-rock’s next big thing burns out too quickly and stumbles instead of grasping its perceived potential. What Stars has in its favor is the future and the knowledge that this story’s conclusion is still unwritten.

Note: “In Our Bedroom After The War” was made available for download last July, but wasn’t released in stores until this week.

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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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