Album Review: Stars Find Their True “North”

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Those of us living in cities probably haven’t seen stars in a while. And those of us caught up only in the latest music probably haven’t listened to Stars in a while. But that’s a mistaken approach, because amidst the chaotic nature of daily life it’s all-too-easy to forget their brilliance. It may be comfortably numbing to lose oneself in the day-to-day of urbanity, but sometimes a realignment of priorities is in order…a re-orientation that facilitates rediscovery of one’s true north. Today is perhaps a fitting day for that realignment, as many kids start school for the first time, and we hope that education will eventually help them find their own path in life. For those still searching, though, Stars has released a musical compass that just may help guide you through the emotional minefields of post-innocence towards the elusive yet heavenly bliss of Truth.

The North begins with its first single –  “The Theory of Relativity” – hinting at elements of musical progression amidst familiarity. Some of its elements have become increasingly recognizable since Stars graced us with The Five Ghosts. For example, there’s the buoyant electronica we’ve heard in the interim from Passion Pit, The Naked and Famous and other indie pop luminaries. But, Stars’ latest iteration shines brightly in this sky; after all, it’s been their firmament for over a decade.

There’s sentiment that the pop gem “Backlines” may end up as the go-to single on the record, and for obvious reasons, but ultimately it may be too complex for the average listener to embrace on that level. Not that the average indie listener is looking to Stars for the simplistic irrepressibility of “Call Me Maybe,” but the mélange of sounds and concepts in “Backlines” are relatively complex for a pop hit. For those who appreciate complexity within pop’s candy shell, though, this track will hold a lot of appeal.

The guitar lines in “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It” suggest The Cure…muted tonalities breathe melancholy over a dance beat, evoking that girl in the long dress and Doc Martens, that girl at the rock show who’s zoned in (not out) and dancing as if she’s the only one in the world. You’ll likely end up in your own fantastical world, too; it’s a great song that effortlessly slides around the register as Amy Millan’s voice whisps its way about the chorus. (This vision is shot on early 1980s video…the Instagram generation knows the gauzy sun-washed aesthetic almost as well as those who lived it).

The Arcade Fire references in “Through The Mines” are unmistakable.  And there’s a link, too, as co-producer Marcus Paquin engineered the Canadian collective’s 2010 smash, The Suburbs. The track’s drums and related rhythms will instantly bring listeners back two years and make one wonder anew, “What’s going on in Montreal’s suburbs?” That’s cool, though, because if we’re going to hear something over and again, let it be something other than dubstep. Please, something other than dubstep. Something other than Skrillex acolytes and their online degrees in making infernal noise.  And if it’s Arcade Fire, well, that’s a bonus.

Torquil assumes spine chilling vocal stylings reminiscent of DeVotchKa’s Nick Urata in “Do You Want To Die Together?.” It’s a schizophrenic song where cabaret familiarity meets arena rock somewhere between verse and chorus. This is a different sort of chiaroscuro than the North American norm, but it emotively defines lifes’ struggles within its moments of clarity.

The Cure’s influence resurfaces on “Lights Changing Colour,” this time extended from guitar to the drum kit and to an undulating fog of electronic ambience setting the scene. It’s a contemplative burner, the end-of-prom-slow-dance before heretofore entwined lives diverge paths for destinations unknown. It’s a bittersweet sentiment, a post card memento from the present that will hopefully inform the future. Some, no doubt, will learn more from this than others.

Simply put, “A Song is a Weapon” is the sort of song Stars’ fans (and the jilted, writ large) have wanted again and again  since they first heard “Your Ex-Lover is Dead.” This is the best song on the record — by far — and it’s a really good record. It’s referential of Woody Guthrie and a song Torquil Campbell describes in political terms, allowing his subconscious to create what he ex post facto views as his “Stephen Harper song.” (“How do you keep a straight face when you’re telling all those lies.” Ouch.) But it’s also a song rooted in their past, one that continues their arm’s length embrace of themes they’ve wholly owned in the past. Again, we see them taking inspiration from that indiosyncratic blend of love, hate, regret, sadness, anger …. That concoction of feelings that occur in the freefall of the post-relationship emotional vacuum.  Our heart strings are plucked symbolically by the plucking of orchestral strings (a device also employed on Gotye’s YouTube megahit).

It is passion that builds, frustration that is unleashed, and melodies that float weightlessly even as the gravitational pull of its lyrics guide us gently back towards earth.  They’re weighty lyrics, pointed and unflinching in their assessment of that person who seemingly just-doesn’t-get-it. There is no catharsis, per se, and the track ends in perfectly symbolic dischordance. In this aspect, it references The Cure once again, but also The XX’s “Infinity” and U2’s “With or Without You.” The song itself isn’t perfect — there are one or two tweaks in the instrumentation that come to mind — but it is destined for repetitive listens. Why won’t it just give us what we want? Can I change it? But, before you go Buffalo 66, know this…the song will continue to play out the way it’s supposed to play out. It will entrance you, it will defy you, and it will make you feel like that girl that just can’t let her ex-boyfriend go. It’s that rare track that throws one’s hands up in defiance of convention and deals with life in the way that it is, it deals with life’s realities in the way that musicians are meant to….not with a pre-baked solution, but with a song.

It would be easy to stop at this point and put the ninth track on repeat ad infinitum, but there’s plenty more worthy of your time.

For example, “The 400” loses you within its John K Samson-esque wistfulness and an upper-register line of feedback, aligned improbably yet effectively with lush harp chords. “Progress” vibes a girl cooing along to herself in the shower, trying to will a wish to reality. The harp returns alongside an smoky electronic bottom line and punctual drumming in “Walls,” a spacey and submissive number that allows the album to peacefully fade away into the ether, not into obsolescence but into an infinite loop where one is drawn to repeat the experience, gaining new insights each time the trip is undertaken.

And in the end, courtesy of Stars, we have a great record. It returns to familiar themes…sex and death, death and sex…their order in the operation creating all the difference in the world. The pursuit and the end, the end of the pursuit.  As with much of Stars’ previously released music, they find fertile ground in the conversations people never have, at least not directly. These are the thoughts that exist in our minds but subsist in the garage of our relationships, never taken out for a spin for fear that things will get worse. As even Joe Gillis learned, we can’t hide forever; cars are meant to be driven regardless of the (known and unknown) consequences.


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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.