photo by Norman Wong
A Song Is A Weapon. So goes the title of a track from The North – the latest stunning offering from Canada’s best kept secret indie institution – STARS. And with those fighting words, STARS are back, having never gone away. Over the course of more than a decade together, STARS have consistently proven themselves adept at producing incisively sharp, beautifully orchestrated pop music. Their sixth album, The North, is no exception. In many ways, it is their finest record to date – a culmination of all they have learned and lost; a record of what it is to love today, of how to live a life in music.
Every one of the twelve originals on The North features significant input from all the band members. “This is the five of us attacking each song and turning it into something that is all of ours,” says Amy Millan, who shares lead vocals with Torquil Campbell.
This cooperative approach to creativity accounts for The North being the most fully-realized STARS album to date. Pulsating opener “The Theory of Relativity” and the addictive “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give it” integrate electronic timbres seamlessly with organic live performances, reconciling the two extremes of the sonic spectrum Stars has been exploring since 2001′s Nightsongs. Quieter selections such as the Cocteau Twins-like “Lights Changing Colour” and title tune “The North” pack just as much punch as complex bangers like “Progress” and the enthralling album closer “Walls.” As is their trademark, the construction of each song is in service of a clear, defined musical statement. “Every lyric, every vocal passage, every arrangement is piece of a puzzle,” insists Evan Cranley, the band’s bassist. “Everything is there for a reason.”
For many people, it is 2004’s Set Yourself On Fire that defined what STARS truly had to offer. The political, honest and heartfelt songwriting, always twisted in the dual themes of sex and death, appealed to fans in its directness and sincerity. The North is an insistent return to this top form, in no small part due to the band’s decision to revisit the same formula that made Set Yourself On Fire a hit: to co-produce the record themselves and entrust the mix once again to the talents of engineer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Temper Trap.) “Tony gave us the record we had dreamed of in our heads,” says drummer Patty McGee. “Chris (Seligman, the band’s keyboardist) and I would drive around L.A. every evening after the day’s session, with the top down, and realize how lucky we were that this had all come together, that after all this time, it was still coming together.”
Not that the process didn’t begin, as always, in the band’s long-adopted hometown of Montreal. As Millan notes, “We hid ourselves in a beautiful old house in the hills outside of Montreal and let the spirit of the five of us come together once again, as it always does.” Decamping to the historic RCA Victor studios in a crumbling part of the city with these ideas in hand, the band enlisted the key support of local stalwarts Graham Lessard (Plants & Animals) and Marcus Paquin (Arcade Fire) to create the songs that would become The North, with much of the tracking happening live off the floor. “The two of them together brought an unbelievably open mind,” says McGee. “Instead of somebody coming in with all the answers, they were also learning as we were learning – we were all trying to figure it out together.”
The North exudes such openness. On cuts such as “Do You Want To Die Together”, a 50’s style boy/girl rocker, and the anthemic, Millan-led “Backlines,” there is no doubt that you are listening to a band thoroughly enjoying itself. This, the key factor in STARS’ longevity and continued inspiration. “We ultimately love each other,” concludes Seligman. “We can’t walk away from one another. STARS has given us all so much in our lives. We’re still fascinated by seeing what comes out of this, and that allows us to keep going.”
“Musically, thematically and lyrically, The North is the essential distillation of everything we’ve been working on for a long time,” adds Campbell. The politics are still there too. “The title of the record is about an idea of the north that is being torn apart by Harper’s (Canada’s Prime Minister) corporate greed. It’s also a nod both to where we are from and the kind of music that has influenced us.” And STARS have influenced some themselves. Chillwave and all manner of orchestral pop that abounds today owe a debt to STARS. With The North, the group are laying claim to rare ground. Twelve years deep, they are making it clear that they are a generational band, a band that will still be here long after other more fashionable acts have faded and a band that without any hype has become one of the most influential and respected acts from North of America.
The North finds STARS older, not wiser, still fighting and loving; still making music because now, more than ever, it is in their blood; it is all they know how to do. STARS have survived attacks and success, trends and life; death and drama both. They present here, in The North, plainly and honestly, a document that speaks moments to decades, inches to cascades.
Listen with an open heart. There are rewards in song, always.
Here, they count.