Sunday, March 31, 2013

Stars: The North

As we crawl slowly out of this winter of 2013, I find myself thinking of this very good Stars album, which came out toward the beginning of it and seems to capture its character. On the title track, Torquil Campbell sings, "It's so cold in this country... every road home is long." That seems to sum up the album pretty well: although it's fairly lushly instrumented and accessibly hooky, the sound is very minor and subdued, with the wall of sound working to overtake the moody, theatrical vocals. The backdrop is pale but deep. The singers are hushed and aching, lonely and isolated and singing about it.

It's an interesting item after the band's previous album, The Five Ghosts, which I reviewed early enough on that I can't bear to look back on what I said. There were a number of powerful, mold-breaking moments on that album, and a number of wide shots that didn't land with me. The North has a higher floor and lower ceiling: they don't go out of their range as much, and as a result they wind up with an album that is a more consistent and overall enjoyable listen, but one with a less thrilling upside. I can listen to it the whole way through, and only a few tracks will stand out as being high points, and even fewer will stand out as being lesser ones.

It's made mostly out of chilling, frozen pop, which like much of Stars' music skirts an 80s-like line between dance and rock. "Backlines" transmutes from a guitar riff to a synthy chorus and builds string-laden denouement. The elements never clash because they are all with a single purpose. Their command over tone on this album is impressive. The liquid "Lights Changing Colour" and mystic duet "Loose Ends Will Make Knots" are among the finest, most Starsy in atmosphere. "Progress" improves on some of the stilted indie-beat of The Five Ghosts, revealing one of many moments where you really see the heart of the album. "Through The Mines" feels like a reminder that as good and popular as Of Monsters and Men is, Stars got there first and are capable of doing it as well as ever. Amy Millan's voice is a beautiful coo. As more and more top acts feature female vocalists, none has quite the bittersweet earnestness of hers.

Nestled between these moody atmospherics are some nimble indie pop tunes that are bright and upbeat but don't quite break the tone of the album, helped by Campbell's stately delivery. "Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When Give It" benefits from this restraint, with the music swelling beneath him and gradually overtaking him. "A Song Is A Weapon" is my favourite individual moment on the album, balancing the precious tone with a catchy beat and good lyrics.

The album cinches up its mastery of tone, its command of "swoony indie rock balladry" with the closing tracks, the staggering "The 400" with its choked up refrain of "It has to go right this time", and the tactful dubstep-lite of "Walls" with its call-and-answer vocals. Ultimately, the album leaves more suggested than outright stated, which is where it has the edge over its predecessor.

Stars are a good band, but sometimes hit and miss with their album packages. Here it all seems to come together. The songs stand out from each other but also stand together into a 43-minute piece that plays very well in a single sitting. I think none of the songs on it will be as well-regarded, years down the line, as "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead" or "Reunion" or, for me personally, "Wasted Daylight." But this is the set they've probably been hoping they would put together for many years. Each song isn't a knockout, but as it goes on all the pieces go into place and the individual moments assert themselves for what they are. Pick it up if you were thinking about it, and you'll be glad you did.

Buy this album now: iTunes (Canada) //iTunes (USA) // //

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