Stellastarr*: Harmonies for the Haunted

David Bernard

If good artists borrow and great artists steal, then Stellastarr* need to pull on the ski masks, conceal the handguns, and park the getaway car nearby. Libraries are for hacks.


Harmonies for the Haunted

Label: RCA
US Release Date: 2005-09-13
UK Release Date: 2005-08-29
iTunes affiliate
Amazon affiliate

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.






West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".


PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".


Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.


Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".


Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.


Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.


The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.


Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.


Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.


'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.