Montreal might be synonymous with such things as poutine, smoked meat and Celine Dion’s chain of Nickel restaurants. But this Canadian city also has bred a wealth of independent talent, including the death-camp drone of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and last year’s indie rock heroes the Arcade Fire. The members of Stars were welcomed into Montreal’s creative surge after they relocated from New York, but they’ve gone relatively unnoticed despite releasing two sophisticated discs (2001’s Nightsongs and 2003’s Heart). It seems the world wasn’t ready for Amy Millian and Torquil Campbell’s take on ’80s girl/boy harmonized synth pop. Yet.
Now that re-hashing the ’80s is all the rage, Stars’ third album, Set Yourself on Fire, might be the disc that takes this quartet out of obscurity. It’s the band’s first for Arts & Crafts, the same label that brought us releases from Broken Social Scene (and just about every member of their large collective). And the band’s sound isn’t all that dated; it feels fresh compared to the Cure and Joy Division emulators out there and is a bit more concise than the roller-coaster ride of an album like You Forgot It In People. Guitarist/vocalist Millian, singer Campbell, multi-instrumentalist Evan Cranely and percussionist Pat McGee pick apart the melodic tones and buzzes from that period and build a huge wall of New Order-esque orchestration. It has tons of sugar-coated melodies but none of the ’80s cheesiness.
What makes Fire so appealing is that it sounds less complex than its predecessors — especially Heart — even though there’s more going on musically. They refined themselves without dumbing down their sound and managed to use orchestration wisely without hurting the material. Heart’s standout single, “Elevator Love Song,” contains roughly the same structure as Fire’s single, “Ageless Beauty,” but the latter unfolds less obtrusively and flows easier through layers of Millian’s Kevin Shields-worthy vocal production.
Compared to this, the band’s past work was preoccupied with blips and loops. The title track marries Postal Service keyboard effects with stylish songwriting that contains one of the sweeter dynamic shifts on the album. It descends from an up-tempo pop number into a reflective piano ballad that borrows more from the ’70s than the decade Stars is supposedly trying to cop.
The musical blueprint created on Set Yourself on Fire might be difficult to recreate live, especially the towering, “One More Night” or the glitchy “He Lied About Death.” But the strong songwriting partnership that Millian and Campbell have developed over the years will be hard to lose in live translation.