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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Stars: "In Our Bedroom After the War"

I can remember where I was the first time I heard Stars. I was at my mundane little office job enjoying some internet radio when suddenly, amongst the typical and expected, came a song that immediately distracted me from the job I was supposed to be doing. It was not only beautiful, but touching, catchy, and - dare i say - perfect. The song was "Heart," the title track from Stars' 2003 breakout album. The song stuck with me, but I never really pursued my interest in the band. One day, about a year and a half later, I was in my local record store looking for something to buy. For some reason (providence, really), I thought of Stars, a band I hadn't heard in months. But the store didn't have any copies of "Heart," only their new album, "Set Yourself On Fire." Hmm? I wasn't sure. I scanned the barcode on the CD and previewed the first song on the album, "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead." I've been a Stars fan ever since. Their entire catalog is filled with effortless pop masterpieces, featuring brilliant songwriting, poignant imagery, and stellar production. Needless to say, my expectations for "In Our Bedroom After the War" were high. I am thrilled to say that I am not disappointed.

Stars albums have the habit of starting things off with an audio sample of a quote that typically reflects the title and mood of the album to follow. This one is no different. After a 2-minute synth introduction (reminiscent of "What the Snowman Learned About Death"), the voice of a older woman, audibly weathered by the years of her life, rises. She asks, "All the blood and the treasure and the losing it all, the time that we wasted and the place where we fall; will we wake in the morning and know what it was for up in our bedroom after the war?" It soon becomes clear that this is different than the typical carefree Stars album, and a far cry from their "Romantic Comedy" days.

The album hits its stride right out of the gate with "The Night Starts Here," a synth-heavy pop song with Amy and Torquil trading lyrics. It's sound is extremely reminiscent of the music off of "Heart," and for that I can't help but love it. The lack of a big, strong, satisfying hook is a bit disheartening, but this is a Stars album so you know that one is coming. As it turns out, we don't have to wait very long at all. "Take Me to the Riot" is one of the album's better tracks, and features Torquil shouting "Take me, take me to the riot" over guitars, strings, synths, and some surprisingly intense drumming. Of course, Amy is there softly singing along, adding a nice touch without overpowering. It's the album's first truly impressive track.

And boy do they keep piling them on! The next track, "My Favourite Book" is the first song that Amy takes charge of, pouring out her gorgeous vocals like honey (or, you know, something else that's sweet). They're accented by the excellent use of woodwinds and "do do dos" in the background. It's jazzy stylings are perfectly suited to the band, and I'm really surprised this is the first time that I've heard them play anything like this. The song is a gem that doesn't reveal it's true beauty at first, but grows on you over time. The same cannot be said for "Midnight Coward," an upbeat, yet poignant duet between Torquil and Amy. The two harmonize with one another, singing, "I can't see what's coming, but I'm not staying in." Later in the song, when all the guitars and synths have gone, the two vocalists are left with only a piano to accompany their words. It is a highlight of the album and one of it's most beautiful moments.

"The Ghost of Genova Heights" is perhaps the most peculiar song I've ever heard from the band. It's verses are shoddily crafted, offering nothing really memorable musically or lyrically. In the chorus, however, the band takes a clear turn towards Michael Jackson-esque 80s pop. Torquil begins singing in an awesome falsetto, "I always see you when I never should. Now you're back in the neighborhood." I can't get it out of my head. Ultimately though, the song suffers because there's really not much to remember aside from the chorus. The band can't really even find a decent way to end the song. Fortunately, it's followed by "Personal," a "too-good-to-be-true" love song told through the communication of two singles through personal ads. I won't give away the ending, but it should be noted that this is without a doubt the saddest Stars song to date. The first time I heard it, I was visibly upset by what happens in the story. It is a powerful song, to be sure.

Unfortunately, the album really starts to struggle from there. "Barricade" is a simple piano ballad with a respectable performance from Torquil, but for some reason it doesn't feel very authentic to me. One of the signs of a good pop artist is that they can make anything sound real and true, but to me this song sounds manufactured and false. When Torquil sings "Meet me at the barricade, the love died but the hate can't fade," he's singing it well, but without true conviction. For a song that is so somber and emotional, Toquil is noticeably distant. "Window Bird" sounds like your run-of-the-mill indie rock song sung by a female, and Amy is completely underutilized. The same can be said for "B*tches in Tokyo," whose rockin' chorus is overshadowed by a complete lack of anything affecting or catchy.

"Life 2: The Unhappy Ending" is a step in the right direction, with Torquil and Amy contemplating the reality that life is not always as happy as it is in the films. Amy sings "Here's the part where you save me. Here is the scene where you save the day. Why can't the ending be happy? Why must it always resolve this way?" The song's lyrics and instrumentation are it's saving grace, as unlike most Stars songs, it's hook is far from memorable. "Today Will Be Better, I Swear!" is about what you would expect; reassurance that yesterday might have been good but today will be better. Again, the group struggles to find a reason for the song's existence as its lyrics and hook are poorly executed. Still, there is something admirable in the song's instrumental second half, if only for the fact that it reminds me of "The Big Fight."

For so many middle-of-the-road songs in the album's second half, "In Our Bedroom After the War" ends with what is arguably the best song the group has ever made and the album's title track. It tells the story of two lovers adjusting to life with each other in a post-war world, trying to capture the beauty in every second and remind themselves that they have each other. Torquil sings"Lift your head and look out the window. Stay that way for the rest of the day and watch the time go," before crying "The war is over and we are beginning!" The song ends with an eruption of instrumentation and vocals proclaiming "It starts up in our bedroom after the war! After the war!" It is simply stunning. I've listened to it over a dozen times now and I still get goosebumps every time. Personally, "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" is still my favorite Stars song, but this one comes in a close second.

When it's all said and done, I can't help but be happy with "In Our Bedroom After the War." While it's true that I could have done without 3 or 4 tracks, the album's highs brilliantly mask it's lows. "In Our Bedroom After the War" portrays a band coming to terms with the bleak and sorrowful world that we live in today; acknowledging that life and love is not always as bright and sunny as their past music would suggest. At the same time, however, the album is inexplicably hopeful despite the band's noticeable turn towards the dark side of life. If anything, "In Our Bedroom After the War" is a testament to the band's faith in humanity, in love. It leaves you feeling safe in a world of chaos, knowing that when it's all over there will still be love and we will still have each other.

Recommended for fans of Stars and anyone who needs hope.

Key Tracks:
1. "Take Me to the Riot"
2. "My Favourite Book"
3. "Midnight Coward"
4. "Personal"
5. "In Our Bedroom After the War"

7 out of 10 Stars

1 comment:

Katherine said...

Nice writeup. I'd have to argue that "Celebration Guns" wins for saddest Stars song, though.