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Monday, May 26, 2008 

It's not much, but it's just enough to keep

I'm beginning to think part of my reluctance to investigate In Our Bedroom After the War is because of the packaging (at least as carried by the store) as opposed to anything to do with the music; it's so clunky and ugly. Not the cover art; the big doublewide paper/cardboard case (I admit, with environmental guilt, that I like jewel cases - so clean, so precise, so standardized) that Arts & Crafts also slapped on the Kevin Drew record (as opposed, to say, their Los Campesinos! album and single, which are things of beauty and not just because of content). It feels and looks wrong to me, for utterly irrational reasons, and the idea of bloat of any sort coupled with Stars' music is just off-putting to me. That the reviews suggested such a connection wasn't incidental didn't help, but sitting here listening to "Take Me to the Riot," the latest in a series of songs that make clear that Stars are one of the absolute best Canadian bands of my generation (culturally, not that Torquil Campbell and I are the same age or anything), and maybe the very best at advancing a certain capital-r Romantic notion of the role of the pop/rock band (yes, they're indie, but really...).

"Elevator Love Letter," "Look Up," "Heart," "Ageless Beauty," "Reunion," "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead," and at least this one from the new album... I'm not 100% convinced that they've made the album they deserve to yet (Heart comes close at worst, and although it took me a long time to decide to get Set Yourself on Fire, the gap between the best and the worst there kind of rules it out for me), but the eventual greatest hits is going to be a monster, and hopefully will prompt, decades from now, the kind of popular and critical reconsideration/adoption they really do warrant. Some of those songs have already got a kind of universal recognition as modern classics among the young Canadians of my social class, and I can't see them fading away - if only they had some full-bore, non-conflicted love songs, I think you'd see a small but significant number of young couples playing Stars at their weddings. It'd fit, if even the most romantic ones weren't about, say, breakup sex ("One More Night") or fighting desperately to preserve some sort of love over the long term ("Romantic Comedy").

It helps that they have two pretty amazing frontpeople in Campbell and Amy Millan, or at least a great dynamic between the two of them, and that they write about love in ways that are surprisingly youthful and adult at times, something that's hard to pull off. The titular sentiment of "Take Me to the Riot" isn't really political, as the video makes clear, but it's something that most people can feel deep in their bones (I don't know, maybe if you grew up in Toronto you wouldn't - people from small towns know what I'm talking about, though). For Stars the political is always messily personal, which is why something like "He Lied About Death" is inchoate rage instead of reasoned discourse, but that means that, even better, most of the time it's merely implicit. I can only image Stars' best songs will get even more bittersweet as I get inexorably older, and further away (except in memory) from the kid longing for a riot, from girls wishing for ageless beauty in a way elective plastic surgery patients could never understand, from someone who can't yet identify directly with the crushing weight of personal history in a song like "Heart."

Of course, it'd be nice if they did make that classic now and they didn't have to wait so long, but either quality control isn't their strong suit or, more generously, they have more diverse and divergent ideas about what they want from Stars than we, the listeners, do. I'm just glad they keep doing it - at their best, they're white-hot transcendent in a way few are - anyone who has danced in a packed room to "Ageless Beauty" knows whereof I speak.

Thanks for reminding me how much I love this album, I haven't listened to it since BGO!

Man, finding a good copy of it there (where good = packaging in nice shape and bought for $2) was tough!

On the one hand, Stars seems to get the short end of some really shallow critical attention, particularly for Take Me To The Riot, which seemed to be greeted mostly with shrugs and "sounds like Ageless Beauty, I was over that song three years ago".

On the other hand, I find their stuff so grandiose and so romatically ambitious that I have trouble taking a full album's worth of it. They'd be really well-served by a killer EP.

No idea who you are, but I think you've hit the nail on the head... when I first heard Heart, in fact, I did just that and cut it down to five tracks or so.

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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