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This Charming Band: Even Stars come out by day.

Pathos of Glory

The sublime hooks and bleak beauty of Stars' 'Nightsongs' transcend trends

By Michelle Goldberg

IT IS CLEARLY too early to start nominating the best albums of 2001, but if anything come out this year that's as incandescent and addictive as the new Stars record, then we're in for a rapturous 12 months. Nightsongs (Le Grand Magistery), the band's debut album, is a nearly flawless melange of breezy pristine pop production and lyrics rich with bleakly beautiful pathos that echo in your brain and send goose bumps up your neck.

One could break down all the elements of the band's sound--the mix of icy electronic beats and strings (more reminiscent of New Wave than of most recent electronica), the wry, cynical sentimentality of the songwriting, the sublime hooks, the romance and urbanity--but Nightsongs is more than the sum of its parts. The album is fresh without being self-consciously innovative, classic without being derivative. It's a little miracle.

Formed by childhood friends Torquil Campbell (an actor who's appeared on Law and Order and Sex and the City) and Chris Seligman, along with Even Cranley and Amy Milan, the band was born in Brooklyn but recently relocated to Montreal. Nevertheless, Stars sounds distinctly English; the influence of New Order, Massive Attack, Saint Etienne, Momus and the Smiths can be heard throughout. Especially the Smiths, which is, according to the album's press release, Seligman and Campbells' favorite band.

THAT MAKES the decision to cover "The Charming Man," one of the Smiths' most sublime songs, all the more audacious. On the one hand, "This Charming Man," off the Smiths' eponymous 1984 debut, is such a marvel of fey wordplay and sparkling melody that it deserves infinite iterations, but it's also such a perfect song that messing with it is courting blasphemy.

Somehow, Stars pulls off this difficult feat with a shimmering, danceable electronic version that's both a tribute to the original and a fabulous piece of music in its own right (though they speculate in the press release that Morrissey would "despise it unequivocally).

Stars slows the song way down and replaces its jangly guitar with a rolling, soulful rhythm and bright firefly beats. What really makes this version, though, is the way Stars uses a looped sample of Johnny Marr's gorgeous guitar work. It's an entirely new way to do a cover, updating the song while linking it to its past.

Stars knows that it would be fruitless to try and imitate Marr's guitar, so it respectfully appropriates the sound, creating ties between its own digital artistry and the organic analog genius that inspired it.

The band's "This Charming Man" cover is far from the only shining moment on Nightsongs, though. The haunting "My Radio," which appears in two versions, is likely to be the record's biggest hit, and it showcases many of the band's strengths. On one level, it's a trip-hop track, with a thick snaky bassline and spoken-word delivery accented with warm horns and sweet female singing. Yet while trip-hop has grown played out in recent years due to hordes of mediocre Portishead and Massive Attack wannabes, there's nothing tired about this song.

Trip-hop imitators like Alpha, Morcheeba and the Sneaker Pimps always seemed to be trying to copy a vibe rather than express anything genuine. Their slinky, ultracool noir soundscapes were all style and surface. "My Radio," though, works from the inside out, its sense of desolation tempered by nostalgia and moments of prosaic transcendence giving form to the music.

Besides, the members of Stars are just terrific songwriters, able to craft pop that becomes an obsessive craving after a single listen. "We kissed to that voice each night bathed in pale reactor light," Campbell sings, and the words linger in your mind like sunspots.

The next track, sung by guest Emily Haines (whose voice has some of Portishead singer Beth Gibbons' insinuating curl) is the record's most mournful. Called "Going, Going, Gone," it profiles a young woman who's run out of options. Over a spare, spectral pulse, Haines sings, "Your face is scarred with age./You're 23, but how can that be?"

Most haunting of all is the chorus, where she sings simply, "It's gotten to be that way" in a voice heavy with resignation. The song ends with a long coda during which Haines and Campbell croon, "There's nowhere to move on," over and over again, the hopelessness both heartbreaking and numbing.

LIKE PULP, Stars often creates songs about short-circuited blue-collar lives. "The Very Thing" recalls Pulp's "A Little Soul"--both are about fathers uneasy with the legacies they're leaving to their sons. Over a lilting keyboard melody, Campbell sings, "He asks why he was born. I don't know what to say/I don't feel guilty, and I don't feel sad/This motherfucking life is the best he's had." Most wrenching is all is the admission, "And even though I cry, I couldn't make him be the very thing I needed."

All this might sound despairing, but while Nightsongs is melancholy, the album is too lovely to be depressing. Besides, there are moments of real uplifting bliss here, and they're made even sweeter by the surrounding darkness. Laced with acoustic guitar, "On Peak Hill" is almost painfully pretty, with a bittersweet chorus suffused with childhood memories: "You're gonna make me wish for the time right before I was born/When every living breath was another new dawn/Like the time I was 5 at the top of Peak Hill/When the wind almost took me away."

Despite all its triumphs, Nightsongs isn't impeccable. "Write What You Know," a rant against the pressures to sell out, comes across as a bit of adolescent petulance that neither says anything new nor finds an interesting way to reformulate clichés. The spectacle of artists asserting their own integrity is rarely edifying, and here even Stars' melodic gifts fail them. The song is turgid, dull and unworthy of the rest of the record.

Far better is "International Rock Star," a song about the dream of deliverance through fame. Shadowy and foreboding, it perfectly captures our ambivalence about celebrity, the way horror of exposure clashes with the fantasy that fame can elevate one beyond the turmoil and banality of everyday life. "You'll find some peace in the big time," Campbell almost whispers. He could be talking about self-acceptance or death.

Aside from "Write What You Know," every moment of Nightsongs is as superb as anything you're likely to hear this year or any other. Like the band's idols, the Smiths, Stars doesn't make any big conceptual leaps or create any new genres, but it brings a startling passion and panache to familiar forms. Nightsongs isn't groundbreaking, it's just brilliant. That's why it will endure, long after the trends it intersects with have withered away.

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From the January 18-24, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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