Last night the Canadian indie-pop band Stars played at Lupo's. I went to the show more out of curiosity than conviction: I enjoyed 2004's Set Yourself on Fire, but not enough to call myself a fan or to buy their full-length follow-up, In Our Bedroom After the War, and I wanted to see if I was missing anything. (Plus, I was invited.) The short answer is "sort of." I still enjoyed the songs from Set Yourself, and I liked the newer material enough, but I'm not sure what it adds up to. What is Stars' music about? This would be an unfair and ridiculous question if lead singer Torquil Campbell weren't so serious and if many of Stars' songs didn't feel so portentous--but he is, and they do, so it's only reasonable to ask why.
Campbell seems to have a political conscience--he repeatedly reminded his audience that there was a sort of important election coming up in our country--but his lyrics tend to skirt, or merely suggest, his political sentiments; the sentiments he is best at expressing are the sentimental, the untestable, ones. "What can't be decided--/In the morning it will bring itself to you," he sings in a really beautiful duet with Amy Millan; "Calendar Girl, who's in love with the world, stay alive," he sings later. These are perfectly fine lines for the brooding melancholia that is Stars' specialty, but they shouldn't be confused with poetry, politics, or with anything to feel much about. Where does Campbell's political energy go when he sits down to write songs? Filtered and diffused, it becomes a soft gray glow--pleasant but unilluminating. The abstraction of his lyrics makes the histrionics of his performance wonderfully surreal: when he sings, he looks like he's finding the notes stuck like something between his molars, and you wonder what all the effort is for. It's as though the song that Campbell thinks he wrote is much more profound and trenchant than the one he's actually singing: he thinks it's blood back there but it's really just grape seeds. Actually, it's really Morrisey--Campbell's voice, when he rears back and tenses up, takes on that familiar throaty warble. (Stars covered "This Charming Man" on Nightsongs (2001) but Campbell whisper-sang his way through Set Yourself and you would never know from that album's restraint that he had such a big voice.)
Which reminds me that the music itself remains very good. Drummer Patrick McGee, who loomed like Roger Rabbit's Judge Doom and kept time with the mechanical proficiency of T-1000, hit snappy 16th beats throughout the show; Evan Cranley played a terrific bass, and proved that Stars' rhythm section keeps the inflated songs from simply floating away. Singer/guitarist Amy Millan has a delicate, fragile voice that seems perched on the uneasy edge of whatever key she's in. Her best song, "Window Bird," was one of the highlights of the night. Keyboardist Chris Seligman made a lot of noise. It seems like half of every Stars song is noise--distorted strings, mostly, scratched and tremulous--and I'm not sure if it's a tool or a crutch. Whatever it is, it fills in for the catharsis missing in Campbell's lyrics; it reifies the symbolic quality of his anger or resentment or regret and it makes your stomach shake. It's this reverbration that I took out into the night when the concert was over. "Take Me to the Riot" exemplifies Stars' technique of alternating confidential intimacy with obliterating noise, and it worked beautifully, as did "Soft Revolution," for the same reason. That song ends with a koan-like coda: "After changing everything, they couldn't tell, we couldn't sing." Does this mean more or less the longer you think about it? To answer this question is, I think, to gauge how much you'll ever be able to really like Stars.