To lead-off, a brief apology: due to the fantastic performance by the previously-reviewed New Pornographers last week, there was no new post at that time. I beg your indulgence.
Secondly, there might not be a greater contrast from my previous subjects, the Gaslight Anthem, to this week's chosen group, the Montreal-based Stars. As occasional participants in the ever-evolving Toronto musical collective, Broken Social Scene, co-front persons Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell bring a significant chunk of that group's overall style, and its fifth full-length release, The Five Ghosts, which debuted last week. Driving that work is a reliance on instrumentation largely comprised of keyboards and drum machines overlaid with ambient vocals
That approach is largely unchanged on The Five Ghosts, but is also advanced through a broad thematic and lyrical direction suggested by the collection's title, although is no more a concept album than the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness or Weezer's Pinkerton, with no named characters or direct story arch. The 11-track offering occupies a etherial and spectral space conjuring a vision of some undefinable and transient state of being. This is in no small measure aided by Millan's shimmering guitar work and the electronic arrangements installed by keyboardist Chris Seligman. The imagery gets underway quickly through the opener, "Dead Hearts." A pleasant, jangly guitar figure supports the question/answer narrative between Campbell and Millan regarding a paranormal encounter, as evidenced in phrases like "did you hear the closing window, did you see the slamming door?" and "I can say, but you won't believe me." The listener has no trouble envisioning floating orbs and wispy visages as Millan and Campbell's voices hovering above the scene, one that's less haunting and more undefinable.
The theme continues on the album's best track – its third, "I Died So I Could Haunt You." Campbell directs the introductory verse into a bouncing response by Millan not too far removed from an mid-album cut by Echo and the Bunnymen or a very uptempo Joy Division number. Its a somewhat creepy concept for a devotional piece, but its easy enough to access even if this type of music isn't exactly in your wheelhouse, as is the case with my aural palate. Meanwhile, the later-appearing "The Passenger" invokes a mildly-eerie late-night train right through strange towns and unusual travelers "in the dinner car or later in the bar." Here, the scene is nowhere near as comforting as those concocted earlier, with its references to "breakdowns" and the "station quiet, the station still; where nothing moves."
Meanwhile, drifting a bit from the thematic tone are a couple of tracks primarily driven by Millan's vocals: the cheery "Wasted Daylight" and the more subdued "Changes." The former hits like a refreshing Belgian-style wheat beer on a hazy summer day (which we've had far too many of in D.C., recently), with its chorus suggesting a carefree twilight, while the latter serves as the recording's counterpoint in tempo and format, with it's 6/8 time signature offering a muted swing that Millan deftly dances through. The appearance of actual instruments – in the form of piano and acoustic guitar – is especially apparent here, given the preponderance of electronic backing elsewhere.
One element that doesn't suit my particular musical sensitivities is the 5th cut, "We Don't Want Your Body," with its schizophrenic beats and whirring sonic anomalies is too much chaos in the background to focus on the fast-moving vocals from Campbell in the verses. Moreover, Millan's chorus part is saccharine and airy, wasting the singing talent with which she usually bests her counterpart. I would have expected better from a Bieber and Miley duet.
Come for: "I Died So I Could Haunt You"
Stay for: "Dead Hearts"
You'll be surprised by: "Changes"