Monday, August 1, 2005

Records In Review: Stars--Set Yourself On Fire

N.B. This disc is apparently just getting its European release, so this qualifies as a NEW RECORD REVIEW!

Montreal-based Stars became media darlings, particularly in the UK, following the release of their second album, Heart. I enjoy indulging my suspicions from time to time, so I picked up their latest, Set Yourself On Fire, upon its release. I always try to support Canadian bands, especially when they're in the two-fer pile at HMV. I support ALL kinds of bands when they're in the 3-for-$30 pile.

Their sound I'd loosely describe as dreamy pop with an '80s template: songs of fairly simple construction and harmony that make use of a lot of overripe strings and the occasional horn or two. His and her vocalists Torquil Campbell, son of Stratford vet Douglas, and Amy Millan are fragile to the point of wispiness. The rhythm section is pretty straight-ahead and contained, with the drums usually marching along with the eighth note bass lines. The guitars do get loud, but infrequently.

It's very listenable stuff, but I've only made it through the album in one sitting once. There's a nice consistency of sound (which certainly separates them from Arts and Crafts label-mates and cohabitants Broken Social Scene), but I just can't rid myself of the feeling that the icing is tastier than the cake and that the music here purports to be more involving than it actually is. The first half of the disc--is this becoming a tragic motif?--is also a lot better than the second.

I gots no problem with simple, but there is an awful lot of I-IV-V on the record. It works really well on the opener, "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead," which is a nice jangle-pop duet with a great groaning solo cello opening. It doesn't work so well on the sappy-sweet "The First Five Times." "Ageless Beauty" and "Reunion" are the two singles that I'm aware of. They're both pretty damn fine and do a great job of illustrating the serious and slightly campy sides of the band respectively. For all of you Progressives out there, there's a couple of Anti-Bush songs at the back end: "Celebration Guns" is a sweet brass band-type lament that reminds me of Billy Bragg's "Tank Park Salute" in a major way, and "He Lied About Death" is a complete waste of time that goes nowhere--unless you consider "louder" an address--and sounds out of place on the album. The closer "Calendar Girl" evokes the Cocteau Twins big-time, and melodically most of all.

Maybe if I was still a sensitive 15-year-old girl, I'd have a greater appreciation for Set Yourself On Fire, but then I'd have to deal with my Golden Cadillac addiction all over again. Those were painful years. Painful and very, very sickly sweet.

P.S. The label page for the group contains some of the most insufferably pretentious crud that I've ever come across; either that, or I'd better take my irony detector down to the shop for repairs. Read with caution and a light meal on your stomach. You may also find it a bit rich that a band who refer to themselves, even with tongues planted in cheeks, as "soft revolutionaries" have put out a cd sporting both Factor and GovCan logos. I, of course, pass no such knee-jerk, philistine, reactionary judgment.