I can’t tell if Shimmering Stars’ last.fm biography is the work of a sassy publicist or a pimply internet troll. It contains a gem of a line that sums up just about everything you need to know about the band: “Shimmering Stars are sexually repressed and puritanically correct. But they are eager to share some of their nasty thoughts with you.” The Canadian dream-pop trio’s debut LP Violent Hearts is heavily indebted to the hollow, ringing sound and dramatic arrangements of 1950s and early 1960s pop music. And if there was ever an era that was all about masking baser urges under calf-length skirts and less-than-innocent walks home from prep school, that was it.
Liberal doses of feedback and lyrics about modern malaise situate the album as a modern work, but in interviews the band confesses to not paying much attention to music made during the past few decades, and it shows. So it’s apt that guitarist/lead singer Rory McClure references Del Shannon as a source of inspiration in an interview with the Pigeon Post. Although Hearts‘ tracks don’t overtly sound like Del Shannon’s work, they’re very much in step with his “sad songs that sound happy” MO. All of Shimmering Stars’ talk about life passing by, summertime moving on, etc. on tracks like the shuffling ballad “No One” are thoroughly couched in sweet melodies, sweeping harmonies, and ringing guitar.
Violent Hearts is a pretty front-loaded album; in fact, the two best tracks are paired together at the very beginning. Opener “Believe” is beautifully paced, neatly stacking tambourine, glittery guitar, and Everly Brothers-worthy harmonies until the song pops open like a cloudburst. Although “Believe” doesn’t have a chorus, the entire song contains the excitement and drama of a pop tune’s focal point. Hearts is by no means an inaccessible album, but first single (and second track) “I’m Gonna Try” stands above the rest as the album’s most persistent earworm, its descending chromatic scale melody and jaunty bounce sounding as though lifted straight from the golden age of radio singles. The cheerfully conveyed (but super morose) opening line “Walkin’ down the street/ And I wanna kill everyone I meet” gives way to a shout-along chorus and “wo-wo-wo-wo” backup singers, the song slowly unfolding like 1963 was one of those tiny sponges that turns into a dinosaur when the Magic Capsule dissolves. Short, percussive “East Van Girls” is almost “I’m Gonna Try”‘s equal in catchiness — but lacks the striking melody needed to launch it to single-worthiness.
Hearts doesn’t have any glaring low points, but it does audibly lose momentum in the second half, tracks blending together and getting unconsciously to background noise — chiefly due to the fact that the album doesn’t feature a lot of variation in sound or song structure. “Sun’s Going Down” is the sole track on the second half that stands up and demands your attention. Like “Believe,” “Down” showcases the band’s ability to milk an atypical song structure, pacing it for maximum dramatic effect. It’s also worth noting that on an album full of impressive vocal performances, “Down” also features the album’s most gorgeously arranged harmonies.
Ultimately, Hearts is an adolescent album in every conceivable sense. The lyrics are self-deprecating and self-conscious, containing knowing references to how silly it is to get worked up about little temporary problems; the vocals certainly contain sophisticated harmonies, but sound completely youthful, not yet cynical or hardened by age — and most aptly, it’s an accomplished album — but one that hints Shimmering Stars haven’t yet done their best work.