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There’s a reason they call romantics hopeless—especially when they insist on making present-day indie rock. Unless they’re Harp readers, fans of the genre generally prefer the angst-ridden and irony-soaked to the starry-eyed and swoon-ready—which may explain why the Montreal electro-pop quintet Stars, whose members probably never saw a French film they didn’t love, has barely made a twinkle here in the United States. And that’s even as cohorts in their booming hometown music scene—the Arcade Fire, the Dears, Godspeed You! Black Emperor—are swimming laps in their critical ink. Indeed, when the New York Times spotlighted the city’s explosion of talent last month, Stars barely won a mention—only a fleeting reference that dubbed them “local favorites.”
That term would be fine for the group that Stars was on its 2001 debut, Nightsongs, a flat bit of electronica notable mainly for a sleepy, techno-ish cover of the Smiths’ “This Charming Man.” But the band’s 2003 follow-up, Heart, was another story. By turns soaring and sedate, joyful and melancholy, this collection of songs about beating hearts, falling rain, and smitten snowmen was dazzling. Its bright melodies were buoyed by lushly arranged strings, quirkily beautiful electronic effects, and the wonderfully amiable voices of co-vocalists Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan. And talk about romantic: The record opened with each band member announcing, “I am [so-and-so], and this is my heart.” It’s tough to pull off a trick like this without sounding, well, hopelessly twee. But that’s why it was such a delight to hear it work.
The album, as a few music writers noted, seemed to leave Stars on the brink of living up to their name—though many of those who praised Heart did so with such irony-soaked terms as “kitschy cool.” Stars’ newest effort, Set Yourself on Fire, certainly reflects breakthrough ambition. It opens in a characteristically grandiose lyrical fashion, with an old man—apparently, Campbell’s 82-year-old father—declaring that “When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” This isn’t a summons to self-destruction, it’s clear, but an appeal to passion, as evidenced by the muscular cello and pounding drums that come in over the next minute or so.
That the song, “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead,” is a duet between Campbell and Millan seems apt. Stars’ music is based on the dramatic tension between the two. Campbell’s voice is friendly and warm, somewhere between Fred Schneider and Morrissey. Millan’s, by contrast, is all dispassion. “God, that was strange to see you again,” Campbell begins, over a swelling bass line and some chiming bells. “Introduced by a friend of a friend/Smiled and said yes I think we’ve met before/In that instant it started to pour.” Then comes Millan: “This scar is a fleck on my porcelain skin/Tried to reach deep but you couldn’t get in/And now you’re outside me you see all the beauty/Repent all your sin.” It might be the sweetest back-and-forth dissection of a relationship since the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.”
This is impressive lyrical dexterity, though not quite as impressive as that of, say, Belle and Sebastian or any project that involves Stephin Merritt. The bigger flaw on Fire is that this basic formula—two current or former or would-be lovers serenading one another—is repeated again and again. There’s “The Big Fight,” which tells the wistful tale of a hollow affair in the form of a he-said, she-said until Campbell and Millan sing together for the mopey refrain: “He doesn’t want her but he just won’t let her go.” There’s “One More Night,” an apparent chronicle of a last quickie between an estranged couple: “Try as he might/
He’s unable to speak/He grabs her by the hair/Strokes her on the cheek/The bed is unmade/Like everything is/Dark little heaven/At the top of the stairs.” And there’s “What I’m Trying to Say,” in which Campbell and Millan hit upon a clever line—“I am trying to say what I wanted to say without having to say/I love you”—but proceed to drive it into the ground, until one wishes they had something more to say.
The thematic sameness is relieved somewhat by more of the melodic charm and musical skill that made Heart such a keeper. Most of Stars’ tunes are built around Johnny Marr– esque guitar jangle—a section of “Reunion,” for example, is another obvious homage to “This Charming Man”—an unusually bouncy bass line, and electronic drum tracks. Added details include ethereal synths, orchestration worthy of the cinema, and cameos by instruments ranging from glockenspiel to trombone. One Fire track, the anti-war dirge “He Lied About Death,” features a fittingly dissonant French-horn solo. And after a stripped-down start featuring quiet bass and drums, “One More Night” builds into a mild riot of guitar, strings, and keyboard. Yes, such mad-scientist excess is typical of a million other indie bands. But Stars do it better than most, thanks to good instincts (putting strings next to what sound like samples of machines at work) and clarity of vision (putting strings on just about everything).
The real problem here is that Stars don’t merely hold fast to their romantic urges; they allow themselves to get carried away by them. On Heart, they repeatedly managed to pull back from the brink of mawkishness by undercutting themselves—and this is the genius of Merritt, too—just enough to avoid sickly sweetness. But from the title of the album to some appallingly overwritten free-verse liner notes to the presence of not one but two hackneyed anti-Bush songs, Fire seems to lose sight of the stopping line. Whenever a dash of subtlety is called for, we get excess à la “Calendar Girl,” whose climactic moment is an expression of existential angst of the fist-shakingest kind: “I dreamed I was dying, as I so often do/And when I awoke, I was sure it was true/I ran to the window/Threw my head to the sky/And said, ‘Whoever is up there/Please don’t let me die.’” (Although “He Lied About Death”’s “I hope your drunken daughters are gay” is still a keeper.) There’s also an overreliance on midtempo balladry, so that too often Campbell and Millan aren’t setting us afire so much as putting us to sleep.
One longs for the relative simplicity of Heart and the less-effortful grandeur it achieved. Only one track here delivers: “Ageless Beauty” is a windows-down anthem that juxtaposes a glowingly warm bass line with Millan’s chilly vocals. “We will always be a light,” she sings over and over, as weightlessly as if her voice were that light itself. Add some tastefully distorted guitar and a few warbly keyboards, and you’ve got the kind of Everysong that the likes of Belly and the Cardigans were lucky to achieve. For all its verse-chorus-verse simplicity, it manages to swell the heart and quicken the pulse. But the breakthrough will have to wait. Until they’re this stirring more often than one track out of 13, Stars will have to content themselves with being hometown favorites.CP