(Arts & Crafts, CD)
Canada is experiencing a musical renaissance of late; fawning critics see the country as a breeding ground for inventive music that isn't driven by corporate interests. Montreal's Stars are part of a growing horde of collective-minded musicians who are re-writing the rules of modern rock. Sharing two members with indie darlings Broken Social Scene, the Stars' latest release, Set Yourself on Fire, is nothing short of a pop miracle. Impeccably produced, the disc brims with infectious melodies, sonic flourishes and poignant lyrics.
With touching and sometimes blackly humorous pop tunes, the album achieves a "frame-by-frame" realism reminiscent of the independent films of director Hal Hartley. Lyrical examples of frustration and heartache exist alongside hook-laden musical passages that lean toward the grandiose.
Amy Millan's coquettish voice is indie-rock manna; framed by electronic gurgles and majestic strings, her gentle coo gets under your skin. Anyone who remembers her work on Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It in People will know what I mean. Vocalist/keyboardist Torquil Campbell's breathy singing wonderfully complements Millan's, while the band's sweeping song structures provide a potent backdrop for both.
Stars excel at the existential pop song, fusing sugary sounds with morbid subject matter. Title track "Set Yourself on Fire" finds beauty in bleakness, with each singer describing the inevitability of death. "Another decade getting high until you're free/there's nothing after that for you and I," Campbell sings on the song's fleeting coda.
"Reunion" is a bittersweet tune about homecoming that many of us can relate to. It's a familiar story, to be sure, but far more compelling here than in the film Garden State.
Stars hit their peak with "The Big Fight," which dispassionately dissects a fraying relationship. "Lied even while you held my hand," Campbell sings. "It's death for the living/Yes I am a ghost," he continues. Millan's retort is breathtakingly earnest: "He doesn't want her but he just won't let her go," she sings. Straightforward in its depiction of romantic trauma, the tune hits home.
Set Yourself on Fire proves that you don't necessarily have to be retro, progressive or post-anything to make a great record; strong songwriting and convincing performances never go out of style. Stars are joined by fellow Canadians, and Broken Social Scene collaborators, Apostle of Hustle, in an early show at Club Metronome, Sunday, March 6. Local indie-popsters The Smittens open.