Stars - Set Yourself On Fire
Montreal, then, is the new
New York Seattle Manchester Sweden. It boasts Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, The Dears and Do Make Say Think (okay, they're from Toronto, but still). And Stars. All of whom are actually quite diverse and different - but hey, they're from the same place, and that constitutes a Music Scene, right?
Set Yourself On Fire is Stars' third album, a silvery slab of shiny, cerebral pop that sounds nothing like Arcade Fire but quite a lot like Belle and Sebastian, Joy Zipper, Saint Etienne and The Smiths. It's a full-bodied, witty effort bursting with different instruments including trombones, strings, saxophone and synthesisers alongside guitar, drums and bass. The songs are mostly about relationships, with Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell's boy-girl vocal chemistry complimenting these themes very well. It's cleverly-produced: this sort of mixture could well have ended up sounding rather twee, but it works; the strings are never given too much prominence in the mix and the guitars and synths provide a contrast to the other instruments, lending the music an interesting edge.
The album breezes in with Your Ex-Lover Is Dead, a wry take on a chance encounter with an old flame. Millan sounds like Kirsty MacColl as she sings in tandem with Campbell over lush strings, jangly guitars and a piano in the background, lifting the sound towards the end. The lyrics are wisftul and defiant, especially the closing lines as the song draws to a climax, both vocalists declaring "I'm not sorry I met you / I'm not sorry it's over / I'm not sorry there's nothing to say."
The title track moves things up a notch, airy synths giving way to Belle and Sebastian-like harmonies and chugging guitar chords that veer inventively into Stereolab territory before the song branches out to a quiet, instrumental coda that leads into Cambell's breathy, contemplative vocal, providing a sharp contrast to the vivacity of the rest of the song. This dreamy conclusion is swiftly followed by the bouncy, hook-laden power-pop of Ageless Beauty, which would swirl straight into the top 10 if there was any justice in the world.
Set Yourself On Fire is a wide-ranging, balanced record. Peppy tracks like Ageless Beauty and the buoyant What I'm Trying To Say sit comfortably alongside more subdued moments, such as the silky call-and-response duet of The Big Fight and the wistful recounting of the end of a relationship on One More Night. Stars sound like a chirpier version of The Smiths on Reunion and the instrumental maelstrom at the end of He Lied About Death is reminiscent of Caribou (formerly Manitoba AKA Dan Snaith - oh, and he's from Canada too. But not Montreal). This is Stars at their most vitriolic, a biting tribute to George W Bush - the only real note of aggression the album.
This band wears its heart very prominently on its sleeve, and Set Yourself On Fire feels honest, genuine and universal. Stars' pop sensibilities are finely-honed and their influences clear, but they're not simply rehashing their favourite artists. They experiment with different combinations of instruments, and the result is sweet without being syrupy; sincere but not sentimental. They may not quite have the sit-up-and-listen salvo of Arcade Fire, but it's difficult not to like their refined, bittersweet style, which makes Set Yourself On Fire a very sophisticated, engaging set of songs. Go get.