[23 June 2010]
From the beginning, what has made Stars unique has been their ability to craft gorgeously dreamy pop music without sounding overly precious or nauseatingly cute. Indeed, that’s quite an accomplishment, sustained over the course of four excellent albums, given the Toronto band’s main ingredients—boy/girl harmonies, fuzzy instrumentation chock full of electronic burps and giggles, and high fructose singalong melodies –- a combination that lesser bands use to churn out excessively twee, assembly-line bunk.
How have Stars managed to succeed where others have so often erred? The answer is simple: it’s the songs. Stars have shown a gift for producing infectious ditties that rattle around in your dusty attic of a mind for days on end. In fact, strip away the orchestration and electronic wizardry, play these songs on a raggedy acoustic guitar, and you’ve still got a collection of simple, catchy tunes.
On the group’s fifth and latest studio offering, The Five Ghosts, Stars continue to add to their impressive discography. A bit more lo-fi, electronicky, and subdued than its predecessors, The Five Ghosts is filled with a solid smattering of melodic indie pop that is accessible, catchy, and pretty without being cloying.
“Fixed”, the album’s first single and most polished effort, is one of the tightest and hookiest songs that Stars have ever birthed, rivaling only 2003’s “Elevator Love Letter”, the standard to which all new Stars tunes are inevitably compared. Both songs feature a similar formula: a schmear of buzzing keyboards and guitars, a steady churning drum beat, and Amy Millan’s delicate eggshell singing. “I Died So I Could Haunt You” and “We Don’t Want Your Body”, which sandwich “Fixed”, are also sure-fire fan favorites. Filled to the brim with programmed drums, hazy synthesizers, and lyrics of unrequited love, these songs are truly brought to life, like much of Stars’ work, by Millan’s sugary vocal harmonies with Torquil Campbell.
“The Passenger,” while not as immediate or accessible as the aforementioned tracks, is one of the album’s best songs and epitomizes the overall difference—albeit a subtle one—between The Five Ghosts and Stars’ earlier LPs. The song almost exclusively utilizes electronic instrumentation, but manages to feel rawer and more stripped down, with less sheen and fewer layers, than most of the songs on Stars’ previous albums. In general, The Five Ghosts, while it features more orchestration, programmed beats, and sampled sounds, has a lo-fi feel to it.
Though more than half of the album’s songs are uptempo and danceable, The Five Ghosts, as with other Stars’ releases, always feels mellow. As a result, one of the few problems that crops up is that ballads or downtempo songs often blur together. “He Dreams He’s Awake”, which aims for Kate Bush territory, ends up lost in a haze of Casio fuzz. Ditto for “The Last Song Ever Written”, which suffers from overproduction and sounds weighed down by layers and layers of foggy synthesizer. It’s also not a coincidence that the weakest tracks on The Five Ghosts are those that feature Campbell on lead vocal and where Millan’s child-like singing is all but absent.
Still, the weaknesses of The Five Ghosts are few and far between and, overall, it’s an enjoyable and satisfying record for one of indie pop’s most consistent bands. If you like your twee pop not too twee and a little bit fuzzy, then The Five Ghosts might just be your new favorite album.