The guys at Arts & Crafts may have another hit band on their hands. Last fall Broken Social Scene burst onto the music scene with its sophomore album You Forgot It In People. This fall, Stars’ sophomore LP Heart, which has been available in Canada since February on Paper Bag Records and in the UK since May on Setanta, finally jumps into American ears.
With each member proclaiming, “This is my heart” before the first song “What the Snowman Learned about Love” begins, the members of Stars quickly distance themselves from the doom and gloom of shoegazing and emo. The band makes no attempts to hide what the message is. The liner notes say, “Kill the bastard in your life with LOVE.” The band is not unique in this message; perhaps they’re joining everyone’s favorite twenty-person plus indie rock band, the Polyphonic Spree, in a new movement.
Stars uses this cheery sound to show people that they can get active and make a difference, and not kick off like Kurt Cobain, which the band mentions in the title track. Inside the case is the Web address for Doctors Without Borders, a non-profit medical aid group, and the liner notes proclaim, “Impeach George Bush!” The band seems intent on getting the listener to cheer up and help out.
The standout track on the album, “Elevator Love Letter,” should be playing on every station across the nation, grooving people on the dance floors, and making Stars a very rich band. Alas, such is not the world in which we live, and Stars remains relatively anonymous for now. The dreamy vocals of Amy Millan conjure up memories of the best pop moments of the Cardigans, the Sundays, and Saint Etienne. Fans of any of these bands would be well served to give Heart a listen for this track alone, let alone for some of the other gems the album offers.
Heart does drag at points. Slower tracks like “The Woods” and “The Vanishing” never go anywhere, and belie the album’s upbeat premise set by the band. “Death to Death,” while upbeat in tempo, is darker than any other song on the album, and seems hopelessly out of place. Yes, lines such as “I am destroyer, I am lover” fit right in with the “killing with love” mentality on paper, but the tone of the song just gets too far into the destruction rather than the love, which should be the focus.
It seems Stars is trying emulate what the Smiths readily accomplish: writing an acerbic song with a catchy pop melody. Stars’ devotion to the Smiths is no secret. It’s readily apparent through the Paper Bag Records album cover for Heart and Stars’ cover of “This Charming Man” on the first LP, Nightsongs. Heart‘s problem seems to be Stars’ attempt to reconcile their influences with their sound, as if being dark is a requirement for good music. But the best songs on Heart are the ones where they let the sunshine in and leave the bitterness behind.
Obviously not every album can be filled with non-stop hits, but when Stars hit their stride, they really nail it. The more upbeat, less doom and gloom tracks such as “Life Effect,” the hidden track after “Don’t Be Afraid to Sing” and “Elevator Love Song” really galvanize the lesser tracks on the album. Their hooks dig in deep and will leave you humming and drumming with the tracks on repeat. These songs alone completely justify picking this album up. There’s a lot of promise in this band, and if they follow their heart instead of emulating their idols, we could be looking a real pop gem the next time around.– Fall 2003