2008 / Music

Review: The Stills Rehabilitate Allure After Sophomore Slump

Canadian Combo Releases New Wave-Inspired Third Album

“Changes are no good” is something that the Stills sang about on their first disc — with the same bored, despondency of their idol Morrissey — but the Canadian underground-rock combo didn’t follow its own advice and learned a tough lesson when its second album tried something new and tanked.

Photo: Arts & Crafts

Photo: Arts & Crafts

The Stills’ “difficult” second record dispelled much of the group’s hip allure and so alienated its newly-indoctrinated fans that their sophomore slump almost sunk the group entirely. The message from fans and critics alike was clear: Don’t mess with the New Wave-inspired formula. To rehabilitate their careers and recapture the hype high ground, the band’s new disc treads closer to the stylistic zeitgeist of their debut and should redeem their standing among indie rockists.

Once upon a time, the Stills’ future seemed promising and unblemished. The quintet was poised to make a big-time breakthrough when they emerged in 2003, both through their own CBGB’s-loving, stilted-rock compositions as well as plain-old good timing. The group initially formed in Montreal but had decamped to New York for a time shortly thereafter, which opened avenues of exposure to the fledgling outfit amid both cities’ much-buzzed, post-punk revival scenes. The Stills were surrounded on one side by Gotham ensembles like the Strokes, Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and flanked by fellow Canadian exports like Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade and Stars on the other.

Besides being ideally positioned to bridge the two scenes, it was the group’s debut release, “Logic Will Break Your Heart,” that placed the band in the catbird seat. The record was unusually strong for a debut, carrying an aura that was dark, mysterious and simmering with intensity. The best tracks — “Lola Stars And Stripes,” “Gender Bombs” and “Let’s Roll” — were anthems for the quiet bleeding hearts among us. The songs implied carefree ideas of nighttime passion and noir-ish romanticism. Musically, they were tightly contained, fusing mechanical guitar patterns and the drive of white-guy funk. The cuts obviously soaked up sounds from punk-era influences like Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, Gang of Four, Wire and others, but as is the case with Interpol, if the Stills’ music seemed like pure imitation, it was often marvelously done.

The Still’s second album, however, was an unmitigated buzz kill. “Without Feathers” sought to rebuff the New Wave comparisons by changing the group’s musical template to what many critics cryptically referred to as “middle-of-the-road” rock. “Without Feathers” wasn’t exactly a Tom Petty record, but did show the group wanted to escape the goth nightclubs for somewhat earthier environs. And this was enough of culture shock to send all those throngs of curious, indie-rock fans intrigued by the Stills’ debut to flee and saunter on to what’s supposed to be the next big thing.

Two years later, the band hasn’t yet given up although their position hadn’t really improved much. Until, that is, Paul McCartney entered the picture. The Stills got something of a P.R. shot in the arm when the ex-Beatle OK’d the group opening one of his show last month in Quebec City. “We were completely blown away because it was too good to be true,” singer-guitarist Tim Fletcher told the Canadian Press.

More potent than a rock god’s tacit endorsement is the Stills’ new album, “Oceans Will Rise,” which slowly rises to the occasion and gives renewed energy to reverse the band’s flagging prospects. These songs don’t completely heal those burned by disappointment last time around, but it returns the group to a more familiar musical backdrop and repositions them as the hungry underdog. These guys want their remaining fans to give them another shot. We might believe that they’re just fighters who attempted an ill-advised strategy during their last bout and are now back to the old game plan and looking to land a few blows. “Oceans Will Rise” does prove convincing, but it takes awhile.

The first half of the record is slow to yield anything truly exciting or to dispel the idea that the Stills are doing anything beyond retreading ground laid down by their late ’70s and early ’80s forefathers.

The initial three tracks demonstrate that something isn’t quite connecting as it could. “Don’t Talk Down” has the kind of ’80s-stylized, lush choruses to suit the jangle-ly guitar and Duran Duran-style basslines, and clue listeners that these guys really want to move product. “Snow In California” has the snappy drumbeat swiped from Franz Ferdinand that should catch listeners’ ears. However, both tracks are all shallow sales pitch with little substance. “Snake Charming,” by contrast, attempts to combine art-rock effects with the drones and polyrhythmic percussion of Eastern music (think “Led Zeppelin III” mated with Roxy Music). The yearning in singer-guitarist Dave Hamelin is an intriguing in, but the band fails to build this into anything beyond a mild studio diversion.

The album finally begins to gain traction with the fourth track, “Being Here,” which is the band’s unrivaled triumph and makes the Stills’ best case to the rock audience to give them another look-see. Here we have a massive chorus that we never thought the band would ever manage. Serrated guitar lines and Hamelin’s Bono-esque vocals avoid or cover up any specific lyrical meanings although they can’t blunt the song’s meaning; this is pinning pure and simple and broadcasters should gobble it up. Whether Hamelin is begging to win back his love or fickle fans, it doesn’t matter. His big-ticket chorus pulls out all the stops that could win anyone back.

To seal the deal, the Stills try to power out to the conclusion by turning the remainder of the album to a musical sprint. The lion’s share of the last eight tracks all start from the same premise of high-energy drumming and slapping guitar riffs with shadings built off there. “Hands On Fire” has the kind of elegantly swelling chorus that Snow Patrol could make their own. “Dinosaurs” features great jazzy drum fills and whimsical disco harmony part that hovers over each verses’ conclusion.

The record’s most aggressive guitarwork run rough shot all over the insistent “Rooibos Palm” and it offers the first inkling that the band can stray into the realm of edginess. Juxtapose that cut with the irresistible 4/4 drumbeat and big-dumb guitar chords of “I’m With You” and you see polar opposites. “I’m With You” is a radio single ready to be discovered.

Beyond the music’s blatant appeals to commercial tastes, there’s still parts of this record that ask to be discovered. In fact, the implicit message of “Oceans Will Rise” is an apology to their fans. Of course, the group never says it directly, but this is an album in form and substance that asks listeners to let these Quebecers attempt a do-over.

To this end, the Stills’ songs have circled back to the style where the group first garnered some attention and more blatantly that ever before, have tried to score a hit or two. The disc isn’t exactly a return to form, but one that certainly says the Still want to go back to what works and are intent on going down swinging.

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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 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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