Music

Stars: There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light

Listening to Stars' new album is like being wrapped in a warm, comforting blanket. A catchy synth-pop blanket where our biggest concerns are who we're dating, not what's going on in the world at large.


Stars

There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light

Label: Last Gang
US Release Date: 2017-10-13
UK Release Date: 2017-10-13
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Let’s start with full disclosure. Somehow I’ve managed to go through the 21st century without ever listening to Stars, even though their synth-infused indie pop is right in my musical wheelhouse. So, readers, this will not be a review that references earlier Stars albums or songs. That being said, I really enjoyed this record. Much of There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light is like being wrapped in a warm, comforting musical blanket. And there’s much to be said here in late 2017 for an album that allows a listener to drift away into a feel-good, happy place for 50 minutes.

But there are some songs that stand out a bit. De facto title track “Fluorescent Light” is upbeat and huge in tone even as it talks about a failing relationship. Singer Torquil Campbell starts the song with lyrics about the night and yellow taxis waiting for a party to end. He sings over sparse, warm piano chords and intermittent snare drum rolls. The building music comes to a halt when Amy Millan comes in, a wash of keyboards putting everything else on pause when she sings. As Campbell returns and the duo harmonize the song crests into a huge, belt it out chorus: “So come out with me tonight / Out with me tonight / No one falls in love under fluorescent light.” The rest of the lyrics twist time as the couple recounts moments from their relationship and seem to be celebrating one last night out together. The chorus hits hard every time, but the bridge may be the highlight of the song. As Campbell interrupts the chorus to sing, “3 AM and the lights go on / In the middle of the chorus they turn off our song / Everyone is wasted, everyone’s alive / We hail a yellow taxi and we drive, drive, drive,” the rest of the music falls away except for slow piano chords. It’s a great juxtaposition of lyrics and music and drops the beat at the exact point of maximum impact. That makes the final chorus even more effective.

The most compelling track on the album is “Real Thing”, which starts as a peppy, four on the floor synthpop song. Millan sings quietly as the music gradually builds. And then, at the 30-second mark, the song shifts time signatures to an equally upbeat 6/8. That is a total surprise, and it’s highly effective. The song goes back to the 4/4 beat for a guitar solo and second verse but goes back again when the chorus comes around. A subtle guitar line plays eighth notes under the chorus, mirroring the hi-hat cymbal beat and giving the 6/8 section a strong feeling of motion.

Album closer “Wanderers”, on the other hand, is notable for how it takes Stars’ basic formula and executes it so well. Quiet verses from Millan are contrasted with a widescreen refrain, complete with echoing drums, sweeping strings, and piano chords that pound on the downbeat. Campbell softly backs up Millan on the verse, but he doesn’t properly enter the song until the second verse, doubling Millan at equal volume. Hearing his voice later in the song is a good tactic; it provides the music with a nice contrast that isn’t there in the instrumentation. “Wanderers” is a thrilling, cathartic way to end the album.

Those are the highlights, and then there’s everything else on There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light. Songs like “Privilege”, “We Called It Love”, and “On the Hills” mine the quiet verse-loud chorus technique effectively, and in different ways. “Privilege” goes all out for a giant, crashing guitar and synth noise in its chorus. “We Called it Love” is a little thing with piano, synth drums, and Campbell singing at the beginning, and it opens up into a full band in the refrain, adding Millan in the second verse and layered backing vocals in the second refrain. “On the Hills” is laid-back, driven by a syncopated rhythm section in the verses and a much more straight-ahead beat during the chorus.

Other tracks take slightly different approaches. “Alone”, with its fat bass, clean electric guitar, and programmed synths, sounds like a ‘80s power ballad. With “California, I Love That Name”, it's rather like the title came first and the song was built around it. Consequently, it’s a fun, sunny track with a bright, harmonized duet in the chorus. The lyrics essentially discuss how great California is with occasional darker, oddball references like “Deep in the canyons where the vampires run free” and “California, I love you at night / When all the lonely killers have turned out the light.” “The Maze” is the one time on the album where Stars openly go dark in the music in addition to the lyrics. It opens on a much moodier, almost creepy synthpop feel, with Campbell doing his best mope-rock vocals (think Morrissey meets Robert Smith). That is a solid idea, but the song explodes into a shouty chorus at top volume with absolutely zero hooks to it. That lack of anything catchy right where the song needs it most makes “The Maze” the record’s one big miss, which is too bad since the verses are very interesting.

There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light is a strong album from a band that is clearly in their comfort zone. Hopefully, longtime fans will be satisfied with the record. If nothing else, it’s inspired me to finally dig into the band’s back catalog and see what I’ve been missing for all these years.

7

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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