Stellastarr* are immediately annoying for a number of reasons. First is the name. It’s not Stellastar, or Stellastarr, it’s Stellastarr*. There’s a little asterisk at the end. And guess what, it kind of looks like a tiny star. A stellar star, you ask? No, a Stellastarr*! Either it’s a clever play on words that utilizes a helpless symbol normally reserved for touch-tone phone menu operations, or it’s a tribute to a Tennessee Williams character and humorous misspellings.
The second annoying thing is the voice of lead singer Shawn Christensen. It’s not bad; there’s just something a little bit off. It’s as if the band needed to find a replacement for their real singer and grabbed the guy with the most enthusiasm, neglecting to check his vocal chops. One of my music instructors once claimed that my voice had personality because it had a complete lack of personality. Ditto Mr. Christensen.
The third thing that’s annoying is the fact that you think you’ve heard Stellastarr* before. You may not have actually heard them, but you think that you have. They are one of the many bands exported from New York that sounds like a host of ‘80s bands. They’re a clone band, and they don’t try to hide that fact, which is commendable. So they sound like a clone of the Killers and Interpol and all the other throwback bands that were inspired by the Cure and New Order and a glut of other new wave bands. Xerox copies of Xerox copies can still get the job done if the copying is expert. Few people complain about Interpol sounding like other bands because they’ve carved a unique niche for themselves and injected enough originality into their music to demand attention. Stellastarr* sometimes achieve this, but more often, they do not.
About half of the Stellastarr* songs become something more than copies of copies. The beats are often propulsive and danceable. “Lost in Time” might be the most adventurous tune, beginning with a plaintive piano part before breaking out into the catchiest lamentation of lost love this side of 1987. Then with other songs, such as “Damn this Foolish Heart” and the cathartic sections of “Sweet Troubled Soul”, the exuberance and sheer craft of the melodies overrides any ill will harbored because the band sounds like every one else. I’ve seen frequent comparisons to the Pixies in other reviews, but I don’t hear it. The songs are too controlled and typical for the Pixies. Only the backing vocals of bassist Amanda Tannen evoke the Pixies and that’s because she, just like Kim Deal sometimes did/does, provides atmospheric coos instead of word-based harmonies.
For every good example of what a 21st century band can do with new wave influences, there is a pale imitation of a song you thought was cool 20 years ago. “Born in a Flea Market” begins with the sound of someone dialing a phone and showcases just how annoying Stellastarr* can become without a strong hook or developed chorus to distract from their liberal borrowing. “On My Own” attempts a powerful emotional and musical climax that takes too long to develop and relies on a labored Christensen vocal. The frequent lyrical woes are apparent on “Precious Games”: “I will never feel the same/ I wish I could change the rules of your precious games.” The only song to stand out on the second half of the album is “Love and Longing”, a jubilant, catchy track not only reminiscent of new wave bands but integrating a U2-like cascading guitar part. But even that song closes with an atmospheric backing vocal borrowed from the Pixies or OK Computer.
For all the cool poses in press photographs and color-coordinated outfits (black, of course), Stellastarr* are nothing special. Even their most loyal fans have posted less than stellar (zing!) reviews of Harmonies for the Haunted on the band’s website. They say things like, “This album isn’t as good as their first one, but what is? It’s still one of the top five releases of 2005.” Did I miss something? Were the fans so bored that they slept through the second half of the CD, the half that’s as flavorful and mind numbing as a plain snow cone? With lines like “I don’t wanna stay/ And she don’t wanna leave”, I wished that Stellastarr* would have spent less time coming up with a clever name, and more time coming up with clever songs. But it’s still one of the top five records to be released on 13 September 2005. Only if you count US releases.