For anyone who hasn’t heard of Stars before, they’re the main band of Amy Millan, who is both a former full-time member of Broken Social Scene as well as a solo artist herself. In Stars, Millan has the added benefit of Torquil Campbell, a guy who more shares the spotlight than tries to steal it. This allows for plenty of back-and-forth singing and harmonizing, all while backed by friendly and often beautiful indie pop instrumentation. What escalated Stars’ popularity amongst the indie community was their 2005 album “Set Yourself on Fire”, a sharp and gorgeous record that featured smartly written songs and just the right degree of production to make the album sound small when it was anything but. Quietly anthemic is a great way to describe tracks like “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” and “Ageless Beauty”, two highlights on an album packed with them. A couple years later Stars would return again with “In Our Bedroom After the War”, which attempted to push their sound to the “next level” mostly by going big or going home. The compositions swelled in size, and suddenly this small band was playing second fiddle to huge orchestral movements and choruses as wide as Canada itself. For a band that had earned their reputation on the idea that big things come in small packages, many long-time fans had adverse reactions to that last album. After yet another sojourn into solo album territory, Millan returned to Stars a few months ago and they officially return this week with their fifth album, “The Five Ghosts”.
The good thing about Stars is that they seem to know that they screwed up with their last record. Whether that was a function of fans telling them so or simply poorer album sales, somewhere along the line they must have realized “In Our Bedroom After the War” wasn’t their best work. To try and get back the magic of “Set Yourself on Fire”, the band brought Tom McFall, who produced that album, back for “The Five Ghosts”. In a similar fashion to your average movie sequel, McFall’s efforts this time aren’t as effective this time around, and in some ways it’s almost like he forgot how to properly produce this band. Much of the new album sounds muddy and clumsily put together, with the vocals shoved to the forefront above all else. It takes away the power that many of these songs might have had otherwise, when you can barely tell there are strings in the background on a track like “Winter Bones” or the synths on “Fixed” get relegated to wallpaper rather than allowing them to shimmer and shake. You listen to these new songs and then go back to “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” to hear the swells of horns and strings and wonder exactly what happened to that band.
Of course some of the problems with “The Five Ghosts” rest on the band too, not just their producer. To their credit, Stars smartly pulled back on the bombastic anthems of their last album, but did they pull back too far? Even compared to the densely layered indie pop of “Set Yourself on Fire”, “The Five Ghosts” feels small. Perhaps that has a lot to do with the somber melodies that populate this new record. This is by far the darkest and most depressing Stars album to date, and the lack of peppy pop songs isn’t helping anyone. But in addition to the dark clouds overhead, many of the songs are similar to one another and relatively pedestrian as far as melodies are concerned. “Coffee house bland” seems to be the name of the game here, where the idea is to keep the sound broad and avoiding risk wherever possible. In other words, Stars aren’t taking any chances towards furthering their sound, and instead they’ve regressed worse than a former alcoholic picking up the bottle again. It’s tragic to hear a band that was once so fascinating and full of life come off as bland and practically neutered.
Believe it or not, there are some good things about “The Five Ghosts”. First off, none of the songs are terrible. There may not be any surprisingly great moments, but there aren’t any abhorrently bad ones either. And secondly, the Amy Millan-centered songs turn out the best in this case mostly due to her vocal performance. Her breathy vocal style lends itself well to the balladry many of these songs contain. Not only that, but she lends a fair deal of weight and emotion to these songs through her voice, something that hasn’t always come across in anything she’s done previously. So really though many of the songs may not be the best Stars have to offer, Millan’s star does particularly shine in this instance, while Torquil Campbell takes a little more of a backseat and lackadaisical approach to his singing than he normally does. Like the tone of the album though, your general impression of it might come off as somewhat gray. To put it another way, a good review quote for the album cover might be, “Eh, it’s alright.” So Stars won’t be making any new friends with this spirit-themed album. A couple highlights do come in the form of tracks like “Changes” and “I Died So I Could Haunt You”, but for the most part results are sketchy at best. Here’s to hoping that yet again Stars can keep their ears to the ground and find a fresher, more adventurous path to take next time around. If not, their visibility as a good Canadian indie pop band might just disappear like the spirits in their album title.