stellastarr*: self-titled

Stephen Haag



Label: RCA
US Release Date: 2003-09-23
UK Release Date: 2003-10-13

The members of NYC-based art rock quartet stellastarr* may want to consider quitting their day jobs; Lord only knows what music they could unleash on this world if they poured all their attention into their justifiably hype-inducing band. If the press release accompanying stellastarr* is to be believed, singer/guitarist Shawn Christensen, bassist Amanda Tannen, and drummer Arthur Kremer were bored with the rigors of being an actor/painter (Christensen), cellist (Tannen, echoing shades of School of Rock, no?) and actor/graphic designer (Kremer), and formed stellastarr* because it was something to do. They added a second guitarist, Michael Jurin, and boom! stellastarr* was born. Would that all creative types could be so lucky. I don't know the first thing about Christensen's paintings or Kremer's acting, but here's hoping they're not a bunch of dilettantes, jumping from artistic endeavor to artistic endeavor on a whim; stellastarr* is one of the most fully-realized debut albums released this year.

Stellastarr*, as is mandatory for the current batch of NYC-based hipster bands, know and love both their '80s shoegazing and New Wave. The haunting opener, "In the Walls", and "My Coco" can trace their lineage back to arty, theatrical bands like the Cure, while the vaguely island rhythms of the ambling "A Million Reasons" would bring a smile to David Byrne's face. But they're certainly more than the sum of their influences. While I gently ribbed the band for their possible ADHD just a few lines earlier, it's that willingness to be intrigued by lots of different sounds that makes stellastarr* a winner.

Much of the eclecticism stems from lead singer Christensen's elastic voice. One minute he's crooning ("Untitled") like he's auditioning for Stephin Merritt, the next he's spitting out stream-of-consciousness rants (the jangly, spastic "Jenny" and "No Weather"). Hell, sometimes he sounds like the dude from Modern English! (Before I get any angry letters, I know that it's Robbie Grey. Chill.) And, to the band's credit, it all sounds like stellastarr*. Sure, they're a young band, but there's a confidence permeating each track; the band knows exactly where it's going and how to get there.

Stellastarr* understand a rock band is supposed to rock, which is almost as important as knowing themselves. "Jenny" is anchored by Jurin's arena rock-ready riffing; meanwhile, the crunching "Moongirl" is more like a Mustang splitting a two-lane blacktop than a lunar buggy. "Somewhere Across Forever" (the title track from their 2002 introductory EP) introduces some friendly garage stomp to the mix. They even pull off the task of making a song called "Untitled" funny, not pretentious. Christensen, backed this time by keyboards and an ethereal guitar, croons a chorus of "So what's your name?" -- if he had an answer, he'd have a song title. Clever stuff.

Polished, fully-formed debut CDs are rare enough as it is; that stellastarr* have crafted such an album while pretty much moonlighting as a rock band could lead one to believe the band could dethrone the Strokes as the Kings of New York if they so desired. It's easy to get caught up in the swells of hype that accompany oh-so-many NYC bands (re-read previous sentence), but stellastarr* is the kind of album that shows that stellastarr* may just live up to their hype.

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