Stars scribble hearts, teach us how to play with fire on latest U.S. release

By Emerald Gao

“When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” These are the first words spoken on Stars’ third full-length release. Set Yourself on Fire was released in Canada (the band is based in Montreal) in October of last year, and made a couple of best-of-2004 lists, but so far this eclectic band has gone relatively unnoticed here in the States, despite playing opening slots for indie staples like the Dears and Broken Social Scene, with whom singer Amy Millan and bassist Evan Cranley have collaborated in the past. Connections aside, Stars hold their own in terms of musical style.

I am not ashamed to admit that I have been listening to “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead”— — the first song off the album— — on repeat for weeks. “Live through this and you won’t look back,” croon Millan and guitarist-singer Campbell. This isn’t your typical, overly romanticized indie single, despite the pretentious street name-dropping and softly intertwining vocals. It’s tenderly arranged, with a simple, aching melody layered over orchestral swells and a harmonica line that flutters in and out. If the album itself is a parfait, this would be the cherry on top.

The songs on Set Yourself on Fire can be divided into three types: Duets carry most of the emotional burden of the album, electro-pop confections feature Campbell’s airy vocals, and soundscapey melodies showcase Millan’s ethereal whispers.

“What I’m Trying To Say,” for example, is bouncy and clever in all the right ways. “We fell apart in the parties of the empty heart/ We danced the junkie in the shadows of bad modern art,” Campbell sings, and yeah, it’s pretentious, but it’s also fun enough to stick. “Sleep tonight,” on the other hand, is Millan’s ode to lovers, buoyed by a sweet brass section. The contrasting tracks are thankfully well arranged, which makes the album interesting when it would otherwise seem awkward and divided.

I’d be hard-pressed to name a band in this era, whether pop, punk, or country, that hasn’t written at least one political song. Stars have two on this album, and both are outstanding. “He Lied About Death,” clearly a tirade about President Bush, is one of my favorites because it breaks the three-tiered pattern of the album. Campbell’s voice is raspy and foreboding, and the intro is followed by a long electronica section with chaotic guitar lines, frantic drumming by Cranley, and some angry sampling, followed by the best lyric ever: “I hope your drunken daughters are gay.”

Every explosion leaves debris, though, and Millan attempts to clean up some of the nuclear fallout on the following track, “Celebration Guns.” In total contrast to its predecessor, this song is soft and subtle and utterly heartbreaking. “Are the beating drums celebration guns?” she asks, and the intimacy with which she voices the question turns the lament into a lullaby.

Sure, the real world is harsh in the larger scope of things, but Stars wants you to know that the politics of love are just as devastating. A meeting between former lovers feels like waging war, driving to a high school reunion feels like hell, and the last night before a breakup signals the end of the world. But then again, recovering from the fall isn’t so bad either, and several songs remind us of this fact. On “Ageless Beauty,” Millan sings in a near-whisper, “We will always be a light/ You can see it,” and “Soft Revolution” is a gorgeous little anthem for hope.

It’s not just in the songs, either. Stars sprinkles its dust in the liner notes and inside cover as well, in the continual call for a soft revolution and in a web address for Doctors Without Borders. The band’s thank-you section contains a message for all of us: “Luxe, calme et volupte.” Luxury, calmness, and sensuality. That’s what Stars strive for, and this album is its little valentine to all of us.

Stars plays the Empty Bottle with labelmates Apostle of Hustle on March 12.