Now Hear This! Stars (2009)

Originally published in The Cauldron (2009)

Now Hear This!
Music You May Have Missed
By Jonathan “Killstring” Herzberger
The Cauldron Arts & Entertainment Editor

So, we at the Now Hear This Mothership have relocated recently, uprooting the base from the prior safe haven, and setting up our laboratory of Alchemical Rock Experimentation in a newfound home, fraught with danger, excitement, and new opportunities.

Okay. This is an overly dramatic way of saying that I, your humble narrator, decided to move downtown in the middle of the semester. The questionable wisdom of my choice of timing notwithstanding, the project included lots of big, Tupperware bins.

“Why bins,” you ask? Good question, and one that does nothing to further recommend said narrator’s handling of the relocation. You see, after several rounds of dispute as to the original and ideal ownership of several articles of furniture, it was decided that a moving truck wouldn’t be necessary after all, and that anything that couldn’t be fit into the back of a grungy 1980’s BMW was not in fact, worth keeping. So bins, obtuse plastic-esque things – far more practical than boxes, considering how relatively few material possessions would make the trek downtown.

“Well then, wiseguy, let’s try this again: why bins, as in – why are you talking about something so brutally dull in the music column I treasure so?”

Point. And thank you.

As I laboriously unpacked these ugly gray bins, a rogue disc tumbled out of the meticulous (okay, haphazard) stacks, and fell into my lap. It was In Our Bedroom After The War by Stars, a Canadian Indie band. Gently, I picked the disc open – the case had cracked a bit from the impact, but the disc remained unscratched. I smiled fondly – it was like seeing an old friend again. As I surveyed the room, and my remaining possessions – and finding my options sorely limited – I opted to slapdash together a makeshift stereo system. An Xbox 360 running into a mixing board, running into a guitar amp later, and the album was playing.

God, was it worth it.

You see, Stars is one of those acts that demands your attention, and once they have it, good luck getting it back. Music to do homework by, this ain’t. The band started out around the turn of the century in Toronto, and put out a decent electro-pop record called Nightsongs, but this was just the beginning. They migrated, first to New York City, then later to Montreal, where they became an integral part of the blossoming indie scene there, around the formation of the fledgling Arts & Crafts record label.

As seemed to be the case with Feist (remember her?) and honestly, pretty much everybody in that scene, the band found itself sort of absorbed into Broken Social Scene – and the members of Stars remain part of that bandalmagation to this day.

That’s right, here at the NHT studios, we’re inventing new words daily, so that you can wax pretentious about Canadian indie music. You are most welcome.

Anyway. The band released Heart on Arts & Crafts (Stateside, anyway) in 2003 – which started moving toward the lush compositions that would come to characterize the group, and introducing singer-guitarist Amy Milan to the mix that already contained singer-trumpet player-actor Torquil Campbell’s front and center. If this is starting to sound like we’re heading into the part of the story where massive egos collided, and dramatics ensued, fear not – this is Canadian indie pop, my friends. They’re far too chilled-out for something like that to happen.

And we’re lucky for it – as the result was a band starting to forge an identity around the idea of the duet – and the already eloquent and thoughtful lyrics started taking on an increasingly lyrical bend.

This really started to blossom on 2004’s Set Yourself On Fire. While NHT cannot verify how many people did or did not take the title literally, it certainly set the music scene on fire – reaching certified gold record status up north, and doing respectably well down here in the U.S. as well, garnering the band their first bona fide single, “Ageless Beauty.” The compositions were lusher, and more extravagant and meticulously placed, as the band started to hit its stride.

That stride was officially hit at the release of 2007’s In Our Bedroom After The War, that fateful disc that started this whole conversation. Campbell had described the record as a deliberate process to tell a story from start to finish, and even if it didn’t succeed precisely the way he might have envisioned, the result is such a gorgeous, lush gem of an album, that original intent doesn’t really matter.

If not exactly a rock opera or particularly cohesive narrative, the wordplay between Milan and Campbell pairs with an orchestrated approach that delivers an album that is just, well… you hesitate to use words like ‘classic’ for something that’s not quite three years old yet, but Bedroom makes a solid case. From the urgency of “The Night Starts Here,” to the heart-wrenching tales of love and war in “Barricade” and the crescendoing title track/finale, this is a piece of art that invites you to come along for a ride.

And as Campbell croons “we won – or we think we did/when you went away, you were just a kid. And if you lost it all/and you lost it; well, we’ll still be there, when your war is over” to a sparse piano, and gradually swelling orchestra, I dare you not to be swept away into this world, it’s mythology and characters. I dare you not to care. I dare you not to have goosebumps as the song and album reach their climax – and while literary conventions suggest that I should dare you not to love this album, that seems a waste of thought.

Of course you will love it, in all it’s bittersweet glory. You’ll hardly be able to help yourself. And as this newfound love drives you to pick up their Sad Robot EP, and anticipate their upcoming 2010 release with baited breath, spare a thought for those ugly gray Tupperware bins.

They played a part in this too, you know.

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