Since the turn of the millennium, I’ve seen two rock shows by bands I had then never heard of that floored me. One was an early Liars show. The other was the Chinese Stars. They came off as a super-tight freak-out band, somewhat in Ex Models vein but poppier — a Six Finger Satellite clone, really. So it wasn’t surprising to learn that the Chinese Stars is composed of members from the late SFS and like-minded Arab on Radar. But it is a little surprising that the Chinese Stars’ debut, A Rare Sensation, comes off as flat as it does. Where’s the energy, the unpredictability, the exhilarating ominousness?
Like the Ex Models’ albums, A Rare Sensation is a succinct, sub-thirty-minute statement of tightly-wound rawk: guitar riffs on the high notes, pretty-boy sing-shout vocals, and repetitive bass lines. It’s not just the un-spontaneous, pre-packaged feeling this album reeks of that bogs it down. By the third or fourth tune it’s pretty obvious how formulaic and unimaginative this band is musically — on record, at least. All the moves are completely predictable: you know exactly when the guitar will drop out, when the bass line will shift, when the bridge will inexorably return to verse/chorus, verse/chorus.
Sure, their musical references are tasteful, but whose aren’t these days? All it takes is with $50 and an Internet connection to buy No New York and start another derivative rock band, so why give A Rare Sensation the time of day at all? Well, the lyrics range from the entertainingly dystopic to right-on poetics about rich-kid social life in the big city: “The girls on the West Side got expensive skin/ The girls on the East Side look automatically thin/ The boys are thirsty for a chance to deflower/ the desperate lovers on their way to happy hour.”
And “Panic in the Population” is legitimately single-worthy, introducing an element of unpredictability into the Chinese Stars repertoire, with its brazen synth intrusions that should have been further emphasized throughout. But we’ve heard this tight, fast, bass-heavy sound before, first around 1978 and now in myriad mediocre examples since 2000 or so. On the grounds of that visceral live show, the Chinese Stars can do a lot better than this — if they pursue their own course instead of becoming another duck in the row of stylish imitators.