Featured Album: “Civilized” by Stellastarr*
STELLASTARR*: CIVILIZED (BLOATED LIFE)
WHAT: New York quartet return after four year absence with strongest album yet.
WHY: Predictably, Stellastarr* were dropped by RCA when their first two albums failed to meet major label expectations. Bruised but not battered, Stellastarr* took a sabbatical, the three artists in the group (Shawn Christensen, Amanda Tannen and Arthur Kremer having originally met at Pratt) taking up freelance work in their chosen fields, the lone committed muso Michael Jurin scoring for indie movies and becoming a guitarist-round-town. Rejuvenated, they road-tested new material, then hunkered down with original producer Tim O’Heir in a Brooklyn studio, taking their time to ensure that Civilized lived up to possible “comeback” claims. In many ways there are few surprises here: the sound is still unquestionably that of Stellastarr*, a glorious array of fractious rhythms, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, sharp guitars, wayward melodies and glorious harmonies, but those who previously found Christensen’s high-pitched yelp too overbearing (and there were many) will be relieved to hear that he has matured significantly, and it longer dominates above all else. Indeed, Civilized sounds very much like a team effort, a much more focused album than its predecessors while still maintaining the band’s trademark sensation of eager disorientation.
WINNERS: It’s hard not to fall in love with the obvious single “Graffiti Eyes,” which builds from a sparing verse to introduce Tannen’s gorgeous backing vocals (and gently thumping bass) before launching into a riotous singalong chorus. (Yes, it’s the Pixies’ formula, of which Stellastarr* have suffered so many previous comparisons, but still it sounds less overt than back on their 2003 eponymous debut.) The “Ballroom Blitz” intro of the subsequent “Prom Zombie” is equally addictive, while the slower pace of “Tokyo Sky” allows the quartet to stretch out and breathe, and sound no less affirmative for it.
WORDS: Ha. They’re buried in the mix, they go unprinted online, and the press release notes that “Shawn wrote many of the lyrics right in the studio, improvising wordplay on the spot.” So perhaps we shouldn’t focus so much on the meaning of lines like “I want you to show some signs of life” (“Warchild”), “She’s just a sweet little thing, she’s born and raised on daddy’s plantation” (“People”), or “We can build a house across another universe” (“Freak Out”), and enjoy them for their emotive impact. The problem only arises when they fail to supply one.
WHINE: Per the above, I’d love to hear a Stellastarr* lyric that totally resonated with me. Additionally, there may be those who feel that after four years away, the group should have returned sounding significantly different, but I’m not sure that such a move always pays off: bands are very much the sum of their parts and the instantly identifiable Stellastarr* deserve extra kudos for keeping the line-up intact at a point many bands would have called it a day. However, much as I love Stellastarr* – and I was apparently the first person ever to write about them – I feel they’ve yet to deliver a classic, 5-star album, the one that fully cements their place in the rock pantheon. The good news about Civilized is that it sounds like they’re getting closer.
WEB: Stellastarr* don’t waste too much time online: a visit to stellastarr.com invites you straight over to their MySpace page, where, as with every smart-thinking group these days, you’re invited to buy Civilized as part of a special bundle, in this case a signed CD, t-shirt and poster for $25. Listening to the old songs via the MySpace player will hopefully serve to reinforce how much they’ve developed.
WINE? For me, Stellastarr* are New York through and through. And while they can be refreshingly bright and breezy, exuberant and enchanting, there’s a sharp edge to them that borders on the abrasive and acidic. Assuming such attributes are all kept in harmony, this sounds suspiciously like a summary of a fine Long Island Sauvignon Blanc. I heartily recommend the Macari Katherine’s Field, though at a recent tasting, I was also impressed by Sauvignon Blancs from Palmer, Jamesport and Duck Walk – especially in the current, stellar (boom!) 2007 vintage. Read about them all here.