Stars – The North

The only problem I have with this album is that it isn’t very good. What’s the point in delving into what the songs are about (as I see them anyway) if none of them are memorable?

So I expect Stars to split and Torquil Campbell to embark on a series of solo albums with titles that revolve around the fact that “Torquil” is a funny name. Here are some suggestions to get him started:

The Torqman Cometh

Sometimes Torq is Stranger Than Friction

Uncle Torky’s Happy Keyboard Hour

Welcome to Torqtown!

That’s Enough Stupid Pun Titles, Torquil Campbell

And by “Torquil Campbell” I Mean Myles

Shut Up Myles, You Don’t Control Me

Yes I Do

No! Duality Isn’t Real! It Can’t Be!

Okay.

Okay.

Okay.

The album starts with the usual Stars-y movie quote, a catchy drum roll thing, and a breezy synth line. Why, it’s almost memorable! But that lasts for just under a minute, when the pleasant but bland melody starts. And so it is, song after song, with every song so light and fluffy that they glide by leaving nothing much behind. I mean seriously, folks, I just listened to “The Theory Of Relativity” fifteen minutes ago and I already forget how it goes – and my notes say it’s the best song on here!

Oh, sure, the songs convey some general love-related melancholy or something. Its Stars, and you know how they roll, thematically. The song titles themselves say a lot – “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It,” “Do You Want to Die Together.” “The Loose Ends Will Make Knots,” “A Song Is a Weapon.” The lyrics are just as boringly romantic and cloying, and when they’re gone you won’t remember them, promise, so I don’t feel inclined to listen enough to type them out.

Stars were always about this sort of stuff – writing songs for college kids with bangs to get melancholy to – and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m still that college kid sometimes and likely will be forever. But that love uber alles mise en scene requires a fuckton of melodic virtuosity and creative production to be relevant. What’s here isn’t particularly bad, but the guitars are so muted and the vocals so backgroundy that it’s probably a good thing the lyrics about holding hands and how talk “don’t amount to nothing” are easily lost. Stars used to write truly great songs, and “Set Yourself On Fire” was notably filled with them, but while I liked the last album for at least trying to do new things, here they’re reaching for what they used to have and coming across as muted versions of their younger selves.

It’s ironic, really. With this album, filled with badly remembering when they were young and naive and talented, the band’s career trajectory has become a Stars song. How about it guys – next time, write one about a band that lost its spark and ability to write convincingly about being young when they got old.

5/10

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Stars – The Five Ghosts

I got this album expecting five ghosts, so imagine my surprise when I played the first song and five GOATS flew out!!!

I got this album expecting five ghosts, so imagine my surprise when I played the first song five GUSTS (of wind) flew out!!!

I got this album expecting five ghosts, so imagine my surprise when I played the first song and five ghosts DIDN’T fly out, because ghosts aren’t real.

But maybe it’s just the idea of ghosts, because it’s a nice idea. Wait, no it isn’t. Imagine if ghosts were actually real? It’d be terrible! All of our ideas about corporeality would be thrown out the metaphorical window, not to mention every notion of evidence and how physical entities exist and die. It’d be terrible. All of a sudden we’d have to approach our lives with the idea that observation and empiricism were not just fallible, but wholly unreliable. Maybe that’s a nice thought for people dissatisfied with this life being our only life, but for everyone who cares about observing and understanding the universe it’d be a catastrophe of confidence. Not to mention all those damned “Ghost Hunter” shows that’d suddenly have to be given credence instead of being regarded as total jokes watched by stupid people like they currently and obviously are. I mean, if only once one of those shows ended with “see, ghosts are real” instead of “we don’t know if ghosts are real, but the evidence is technically inconclusive” then all the idiots who feel any kind of ambivalence towards them would be justified. And us smart people wouldn’t be able to look down on lottery chasers and libertarians anymore because “well, anything can happen!” would be privy to nefarious and unknown new laws of nature. Oh god that doesn’t exist.

For great objectivity, dear reader (and not “deer reader” because what would be up with THAT??), you’re better off pretending that this isn’t the same band that made the curiously overhyped “Nightsongs” and the promising “Heart” and the wonderful “Set Your Shelf On Fire” and the disappointing “In Our Bedroom After the War.” These guys sound like a totally different group, one that has completely traded their guitars for fancy keyboards and given up the endless romanticism and theatrical love obsession for a generally cheerful scattershot indie approach, more like Mates of State and Kraftwerk than their old selves.

On the plus side, I no longer want to smack Torky in the face for being a whimper. On the other they’re no longer able to accomplish anything great. Instead there’s a lot of solid songs here, a lot of breezy catchy numbers about (surprise!) ghosts and riding trains and such, and no great statements about the standing of modern love and death. They’ve settled into “you’ll enjoy it while it’s on but you won’t miss it when it’s over” territory. As much as I miss nearly every song on that one great album, at least it isn’t a chore to get through, and I could conceivably play it around my more macho friends without shame. The only real loser is the leaden opener “Dear Hearts,” and the winners are numerous. But they’re all role player winners; songs for to lose in the first round of the song playoffs.

If Stars become a treadmill band then it’s a reasonable deal. They went for it all when they were young, usually missing embarrassingly but occasionally making something great. Now the songs are adults working jobs as functioning cogs in a churning indie song machine. At least its a change. But trust me about the ghosts.

On an unrelated note, the four extra songs that came with my version, why the heckfire were they not included on the CD? They’re four of the best songs here, including the freaking title track! Stop doing this to people, bands!

7/10

Stars – Sad Robots EP

Aw man, for lunch today I was making this lunch concoction for girlfriend and myself of soy chorizo, green onions, and scotch bonnet peppers. The scotch bonnet pepper, if you don’t know, is a small Caribbean hot pepper (called just the “hot pepper” by many island sorts) that reaches upwards of half a million scovilles. Jalapenos, by comparison, average twenty thousand. Scotch bonnets are serious business and will punish you if you lack the proper respect.

I cut one up using a sharp knife and my bare hands. I was careful and washed my hands afterwards and went about my youthful frolics. Maybe ten minutes later my left eye itched and I rubbed it to get the itch out. A few seconds later my eyes started to burn fiercely. The ten minutes of my life was spent agonizing, running my screaming eye under a tap, begging my roommate for advice, my girlfriend doubting it could be this bad (it was), and intense self-pity of the sort I hadn’t felt since 5:30 earlier that morning when I inexplicably awoke from my slumber and couldn’t get back to sleep. It was a struggle. When your mouth burns you can eat yogurt or drink cream to feel better, but when it’s your fucking eye all you can do is try not to burst into pathetic, nearly impotent tears.

I showed that motherfucker by eating it and not doing it the favour of spreading its seed. I turned part of it into me. Ha! Sure, most of it became feces, but the rest became me. And what revenge could be greater than by killing one’s foe and absorbing its nutrients for your own use? As far as the peppers are concerned we are the matrix makers, feeding off of their energies forever. It’s an eternal burning hell, helped only by the significant succor that peppers can’t suffer. Luckily, because humans are compassionate creatures, we would never act in such a cavalier way towards a captive species that does suffer. That would be immoral and monstrous on such a grand scale that our own moral standing as a species would be hopelessly compromised and we’d deserve all the torture and rape and mass killing that ongoing history has bestowed on us!

The point, I think, is that this is a nice EP. And unexpectedly too. Not making an album means not having to make a statement every few seconds, which means the band’s talents can come out without all the pretension that can ruin things and make me throw up and put on old Dead Kennedys albums. There’s a couple nice pop songs, a synthy, affecting take on an old old song (“Going, Going, Gone”), only one pretentious long number, and two soft bookends that both sound like walking in a parking garage feeling at turns aghast and miserable.

See, these guys are talented at being sad and filling your ears with melancholia and nostalgia and black bile and all that. Anything else they can only pull off on a good day. But here they keep it restrained and, well, sad and nostalgic. I dig.

Say, how the heckfire is anybody ever comfortable with living only one life? I met, briefly, someone going to a school in New York next year, and it set in motion the usual mental dissatisfaction I have whenever I hear of anyone going anywhere remotely interesting. I want to know. I want to tour every campus, spend a year in every high school, be at every Saturday night party, for everyone and for ever. And that’s just North America! I want to grow up in London once and grow up again in Birmingham, Alabama. I want to see my own funeral once for every time I could ever die. And I can’t do it! Not fair not fair not fair! Stars are a good band to listen to when I have this problem. As always, your mileage may vary.

8/10

Stars – In Our Bedroom After the War

And that all ended quickly. A tragic case of album shittiness, because these were pretty likable guys, especially the girl. After the opener (a charmed-o electronic ambient moody intro) the problems are many. Let’s run’ em down for you!!:

1. The second song makes it seem like I’m to expect some sort of epic, career-defining album, but there’s little to back up this presentiment. If you’re going to act like you’re speaking for a generation you’d better have something crazy good to back it immediately. And that song itself isn’t memorable other than rhyming “fear” with ‘here” three freaking times as if we wouldn’t notice that they couldn’t think of any other rhymes.

2. Too many songs start in my notes with “meh.” It’s not that the songs themselves are genre exercises, but instead that their genre is the only memorable part of them. There’s “jazz-pop love song,” and “the one where they sound like Michael Jackson,” and “the one with the briefly fast drums,” and “boring piano ballad.” The lack of vocal hooks is probskis the main culprit here.

3. The love songs are all useless! What’s notable about “My Favourite Book” other than the mediocre titular idea? It’s just a soft love song! “Barricade” is a cheap take on Bowie’s “Heroes” with all the interesting stripped away (also the part where its historically relevant). Overly dramatic + piano ballad = pernicious narm.

4. “Personal” is a slow ‘very sad song’ song about a couple trying to meet over (surprise) personal ads that’s all sorts of silly. Who would answer an ad with “sorry to be heavy / But heavy is the cost” apropos no other such vagaries? And are newspaper personal ads really a good medium for conveying the dark heart of modern relationships anymore? Hint: no. Another disconnect between anticipated impact and real resonance.

5. A few songs have unfinished-sounding sections where the band just kinda jams it out. What’s up with the endings to “Window Bird” and “Bitches in Tokyo” otherwise?

6. The end of the album is a trio of increasingly long overproduced melodramatic pop songs that try to summarize huge elements of life (one’s called “Life 2: The Unhappy Ending,” another “Today Will Be Better, I Swear!”) and can’t even make it to interesting song status, so it’s just a big load of underwhelm.

Don’t lick my crank too sensuously. There’s good here. “Take Me to the Riot” is a real winner of an indie rock single, quiet to loud minor to major done well, and the part where the drummer plays an extra beat in every other sequence may be the most interesting thing on the whole album. “Window Bird” is nifty and “Bitches in Tokyo” is solid non-lame girly rock. Plus, “Personal” is good for mentally inserting vulgar lyrics. Try it with Peaches “AA XXX,” for instance! But overall this is a big time letdown, like Stars are old and out of touch just when they got in touch in the first place.

4/10

Stars – Set Yourself On Fire

Saying that human beings are incompetent is like saying the Alps are heavy, so it’s nice when someone gets it right for a goddamned change.

You can get away with selling a weak premise if you’re a talented arguer. Hell, I’ve been using that logic to make my girlfriend date me for almost four years now. In the merry old land of art talented arguing is a simple manner of efficacy. What I’m getting at is that the caprices of sensitive people are meaningless, but Stars get it so right here, so artistically valid, that this is a really fucking solid album. Transcendent, even. Magical if you’re high enough.

Remember when Christina Aguilera’s first song was “Genie in a Bottle”? So do I. Anyway, I forgot about Dre again. I’m always forgetting about Dre; some say it’s my most wonderful quality.

To imagine what’s going on here, imagine a 21 year-old: shapely androgynous haircut. Fitting thrift store clothes. Small nose. Light blue shoes. Idealistic but prone to fits of depression. Aware of the shames of humanity but hopeful. Dreams of moving to New York or Portland. Wants to make a difference and maybe someday money. Likes hallucinogens more than stimulants. Democrat for life. Confident, but braced by absorbing the first wave of adulthood’s blows. Maybe taking English and already regretting it; maybe taking economics and already regretting it.

Now imagine this person putting their everything into an album and getting nearly everything the fuck correct. Romanticism, idealism, outrage. Sure, you want to punch them in the face, but that’s the bitter side of you wanting, isn’t it? The same side that loses patience with panhandlers and beeps at kissing teenagers.

Thar’s your intangibles. Tangibly: they got a real band! No more stupid synthshshtthshs! It sounds quite fetching. And like a band with too many great ideas, they manage to make each song a fun melodic surprise, and they’re all good! For starters, “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” is a shockingly great stringy duet about meeting one’s former lover, culminating in a a risible “I’m not sorry I met you / I’m not sorry it’s over / I’m not sorry there’s nothing to save” that falls in the realm of things that would only not slightly affect the emotionless. Plus, it has a classy epigraph. But then! “Set Yourself On Fire” is a jaunty synth-pop number driven by a driving bassline, and a charming reflection on what’s important in life. Then “Ageless Beauty” is a genuine indie rock song filled with youthful optimism. Catchiness is hard to describe, but each song feeling unique and unboring isn’t. The rest of the album isn’t quite the joy, but you still get a pleasant change with every coming song; it never gets boring.

Lyrically you’ve got three topics: romance, death, ‘n’ outrage. Romanticism is the troubling one, but the dudes stay smart by sticking to the sexual side of things unless they really know what they’re doing. “One More Night” is all about breakuo sex, “The First Five Times” is a charming ode to initially getting it on, “Reunion” is basically a well-written pickup line to an old high school crush, and “Sleep Tonight” is pretty obvious. The romantic overtones are totally there, they’re just implied as if the band is talented or something. The outrage is a bit weaker, all wrapped up in anti-Bush outrage, even if “I hope your drinking daughters are gay” is a pretty good zing. But that’s situational stuff, and it’s forgivable if you remember your 21 year-old being alive during the Bush years – what would you have it sing about?

By the time it gets around to the closer “Calender Girl” you’ve heard a stirring fuckton of great harmonies and melodic surprises, and the predictable chord changes are welcome amidst the charming optimism and niceness. It’s still a pansy album, but pansy makes good here. If you don’t like it you’re probably either a sad person or not a sad enough person.

In conclusion, to quote an email written to me many months ago, “in conclusion, fuck you.”

But no. No! Dig it because this is a life you want to live and continue leading. Sure they’re idealistic, but they’re right about everything. These things matter on their on their own terms. These things are important in and of themselves and they’re here beautifully. This is charm, this is form, this is actualization. Enjoy it while you’re waiting for the elevator, while you walk through the park, while you walk along the street with your friend. Stare out the window, because this is either who you are or who you used to be.

9/10

Stars – Tour EP

Probably not a legitimate release, especially considering “The Aspidistra Flies” is called “Umbrellas.” Don’t be fooled by the implication of liveness in the name, this is actually an EP of demos, with the exception of one that’s played live on radio. Here there be two songs from “Heart” (including the title track, so I can listen to its cloying six minutes of schlock for a third time in three days!), one non-album track (don’t worry, it sucks) and the entirety of the The Comeback EP, which was a nice little EP.

Back in this EP’s day demos consisted entirely of Torky and Amy and the wacky sounds they make with their keyboards, so nothing unexpected here, but they’re good enough to keep the synth noises to a This release doesn’t matter and I’m sober, so here are my poorly written song notes:

Heart – “sometimes the tv is like a lover / singing softly as you fall asleep”

namsy-pansy way of singing everything, like the way he says “snow”

Amy Milan much better singer – my problem isn’t really with her voice – stripped of instrumentation the chorus is actually much better. No lame horns or unnecessary strings stringing up the damned song. Voice so lovely ha ha ha! Still, this song’s a loser song. Not that I hate all songs about persistent feelings, but this is SO droopy that thinking about it nearly ruins the magic of making out.

Violent – successfully kinda creepy, until the silly whispering-to-try-to-be-creepy and “tense” bloopy noises coda.

Crush – Like early Metric! Nice to hear Amy get a whole song – her vocal styling works so much better for these demos, Mr. Emotesalot sounds good with a full band, but here – blech. Song is so airy it’s almost not here, but makes me horribly nostalgic for some reason. Maybe it’s the part where it sounds like 2002? But I hated being alive in 2002 for decent reasons, so I don’t know what’s up in this bitch.

Umbrellas – Actually “The Aspiditra Flies” – what the fuck are “sweet lies” anyway? Who tells these in their relationships? Still a lovely song. For a goddamned change the instrumentation is suitable to the subject matter. Singing about something small and sad? A cute three-note piano riff is a good way to do that unless you know damn right what you’re getting into. Just one ill-used violin and you’re solidly in narm territory. I still don’t know how umbrellas could ever hide one’s love. Unless umbrellas have magical emotion-blocking powers and nobody’s ever told me.

The Comeback – A meh soft rock song. Nice to hear some guitar in there, but the song still serves little purpose. Why’s the fade-out so long?

Drive-By – Another mediocre soft rocker. You “pump this song” to remind someone that you’re still here? Wonderful, she’ll be reminded that she left you to date that alcoholic personal trainer that didn’t have to be taught how to fuck her.

Cote De Neiges – That’s French for “Cote of Neiges.” Probably a nice song for wandering through a new neighbourhood of Montreal in the middle of winter, but for the rest of us it’s just an above-average piano/drums/distorted guitar instrumental.

The Woods – Still an outlier in the catalogue. There’s still that strange voice sample and the creaky door background noise. Actually the sample goes on much longer, so now you can hear the full fascinating sample of an English woman talking about losing her scarf. This is actually a song that works better with the louder production because the song itself is more or less inconsequential. Also, I have no idea what this one’s all about. Something like three feet, I reckon.

6/10

Stars – Heart

It’s no surprise what you’ll find in this can o’ syrup – pretty electro-pop with a male and a female sharing heartfelt lead singing duties – but you may be surprised to find yourself tapping your emotional foot to the catchy melodies instead of frantically erasing all signs of the earnest glurge.

A quick glance at the song titles sums up most of what’s wrong here – “Heart,” “Time Will Never Kill the True Heart,” “Romantic Comedy,” “Don’t Be Afraid to Sing.” And yes, I am decidedly a “song title inside quotes” man from now on. Or perhaps you’d prefer Girlfiend’s outburst from a few nights ago: “What is this sentimental crap? If I heard this on the radio I would laugh and laugh.” We then began our third consecutive drunken game of electronic Risk that resulted in a shouting argument, so I knew that she was serious. That was during the pretty silly “Heart,” a wimpy song that’s all the goopiest parts of this album in one and it’s freaking six minutes long.

But there’s lots to like amidst the part where all my frat friends would stink-eye me if I played it around them. Even though the opener starts with each member of the band earnestly intoning “I am (name), this is my heart,” the song turns into a lovely repetitive icy riff thing and a lovely repetitive harmony on a few lines that doesn’t have anything to do with snowmen at ALL. Then the second song is an excellent call-and-answer pop song that snakes around on a great chord progression, neat-o bass riff, and the sly line “I’m so hard for the rich girl” that may be the one time on the album that Stars don’t sound like pansies.

“What the Black Snowman Learned About Love” and “Escalator Love Letter” are the two best songs here (except maybe the prosaic “Look Up”), but there are lots of unexpected (to my stupid ears) chord changes and neat-o keyboard settings here (and good basslines – what the gentle fuck?) to make the message of the album/band palatable: that message being that it’s okay to be extremely serious about god damned everything your arts student neurochemicals tell you to be serious about. It’s certainly music for young people, though hopefully not the 18 year-old mentioned in the shameful closer “Don’t Be Afraid to Sing.”

And I stand by being ashamed to voice such a sentiment. It’s heavy-handed and simplistic, and who gives a fuck if some white kid in university is afraid to “sing” or not? I know there are always more important things, but the self-esteems of soft-hearted teenagers is as meaningless and intentionally blind as a songwriter can be if they’re treating it EXTREMELY SERIOIUSLY like these guys are. It manages to simultaneously preach, say nothing, and be saccharine. And phrased in this way – without any subtlety or hooks – it’s just boring. Can’t they at least pretend it’s about a kitten or something?

I don’t think I’d want to be friends with these people unless they’re stunningly attractive but damn it, pretty melodies! Catchy harmonies! That creepy voice in “The Woods!” At times lovely reflections on life as a sensitive young person! It sounds pretty good as long as they avoid sounding like they think they’ll all die the day after the recording session.

6/10