Ah, to wallow once more in the stylish rock noir of yesteryears. It’s eleven o’clock on the dot when Montreal pinups The Stills slink onstage at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, five sinewy silhouettes emerging from a cloud of semi-expensive French cologne. Two of them—singer/guitarists Tim Fletcher and Dave Hammelin—are absurdly, predictably photogenic. Notably, keyboardist Liam O’Neil and drummer Julien Blais seem rather comfortable with a “two up front, three behind” dynamic. The same cannot be said of the band’s decidedly over-amped bass player, Olivier Corbeil, who periodically invades center stage at key “rock out” moments.
They open with an innocuous little thumper called “Don’t Talk Down”, the first track off this year’s allegedly laudable Oceans Will Rise. The considerable audience is largely made up of wavy-haired young women aged eighteen to twenty-five. They and their drainpipe jean-wearing male cohorts (who also have wavy hair) will smoke Gauloises together in the pleasantly cool Williamsburg air directly following the show. During the set, though, everyone sings along to their favorites from the band’s admittedly stellar first record, Logic Will Break Your Heart. In comparison, they sing just the choruses to songs such as “Destroyer” and “In the Beginning” from the band’s second album, Without Feathers, and seem inwardly conflicted about whether or not the latter’s main riff sounds a little too much like Heart’s “Barracuda”.
“Lola Stars and Stripes”, a song that boasts the band’s most impressive combination of crisp rhythmic textures and soaring, reverb-y guitar, comes off fairly well, sounding only slightly overblown. Less impressive is the fact that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the stage seems to rob Fletcher’s voice of its more distinctive nuances, the kind of hair-raising inflections that made dead simple lines like, “And before too long you’ll be selling lemonade / To the overpaid,” sound nearly visceral on the record. This isn’t really a sin in and of itself, merely one irritatingly unavoidable point of fact.
“Snakecharming the Masses” is an ambitious rhythmic adventure (with Hammelin on auxiliary floor tom) that works for about half of its five minutes. The chorus, like most of the band’s choruses these days, is all about repeating the title using a series of notes situated within one octave. On some of the better sounding songs, Hammelin harmonizes with Fletcher as he sings these notes. “Destroyer”, on which Hammelin sings lead, is not one of these better sounding songs. Throughout the band’s eighty-minute set, I find myself wishing that The Stills would work a little harder on the area of verse melodies.
On a more positive note, the biggest surprise of the night is “Being Here”. On the new record it screams, “We love U2!” in the most reprehensible way, but to hear it live, on the other hand, is to arrive at an immediate understanding of why the band wrote it. And why should anyone begrudge a modern pop group one perfectly innocent crowd-pleaser? Who cares about art or even style when you’re six drinks into your night and the guitar player’s starting to thrash around like an airborne river trout on ecstasy? It’s instant redemption—for about three-and-a-half minutes, at least.
But alas, nothing gold can stay, and once you’re over those surging choruses, bed-head coiffures, and Hammelin’s two or three guitar tricks, you’re pretty much over The Stills altogether. Realizing this renders an encore completely unnecessary. We get an encore anyway. The band comes back out without so much as a glimmer of triumph in its eyes to play two songs that make little if no impression on the audience. Some bob their heads dutifully; others—like myself—stare blankly. Then they play fan fave “Gender Bombs”. Sadly, it’s all false promise. People snap out of their reveries briefly to sing the first verse and then the refrain (“The girl will school you”). After this hearts and minds wander until the song ends. The band waves a friendly goodbye and exits stage right, presumably into the arms of French-Canadian chanteuse girlfriends. Within seconds a security guy from the venue has mounted the stage and starts waving us all toward the exits. We feel like homeless people being shepherded out of an all-night McDonalds at three in the morning. I look at my watch and it’s only 12:30 am.