Here’s the backstory: Stars of Track and Field used to be a quartet, now it’s a trio. When the group dispensed with its bass player, the remaining members replaced him with synthesizers. And drum machines. After this lineup adjustment, the band released a five-song EP, three songs from which appear on this full-length debut.
The band plays guitar-based indie rock with electronic embellishments and sticks to that simple formula, which means the songs on Centuries Before Love and War sound very much the same. One track bleeds harmlessly into the next as the album proceeds in a calm and orderly fashion. This might be the perfect soundtrack for waiting in line at the DMV.
In their favor, the band members know how to craft an engaging melody. “Films of Antarctica” and “Exit the Recital” feature gorgeous melodic moments, punctuated by sweet harmony vocals and tasteful instrumental breaks. Trouble is, the band can never seem to turn a great melody into a great song. There are few surprises in these tracks, and there’s scarcely any interplay between loud and soft, fast and slow, joyful and morose. These are the kinds of songs Coldplay might have written if bassist Guy Berryman was replaced with an electronic device from the Roland Corporation.
There are exceptions. The band is at its best when it mixes up the arrangements, as on opener “Centuries” and “With You.” These tracks make clever use of empty space to create a sense of building tension. “Lullabye for a G.I.” turns a mildly funky electro-groove into an intriguing meditation on… something. Perhaps love? Possibly war? But for every song on the album that delivers thrilling moments such as these, there are three tracks that amble from start to finish in a pleasant yet forgettable fashion.
Then there are the lyrics. Consider this line from “Exit the Recital”: “White noise from telephones/ I can see your heart bleed/ Sun can’t burn now.” And here’s an excerpt from “Real Time”: “Birds watching from the lines/ as your heart beats a thousand times/ god robots and blood/ will not save you from your own.” Fellas, would you mind sharing with the class? These lyrics aren’t merely abstract, they are totally incoherent. Perhaps there’s a code here that I’m not smart enough to crack. But even if there were, would there be some great reward waiting at the other end? I don’t mind incoherent lyrics if individual lines are evocative or at least display some clever wordplay (see the New Pornographers). Alas, Stars of Track and Field’s lyrics easily could have been written by an indie-rock lyric generator program — the unregistered demo version of that program.
Stars of Track and Field’s debut suggests a band with talent and some genuine promise but doesn’t quite deliver what it could. But don’t worry, guys, you’ll have another chance in 2008. See you in Beijing.