STARS at the Mod Club (722 College), Saturday (December 18). $15. All-ages show Sunday (December 19) at 5 pm. $15. 416-870-8000, 416-588-4663. Rating: NNNNN
You say you want a revolution? Yeah, yeah. We all want to change the world. And if you're gonna start talking about destruction, well, er, you can count Stars in. The Montreal-based dream pop squadron has been patiently toiling behind the front lines for years, structuring a manifesto for their self-styled "soft revolution" around anthems of beauty and ballads about sleeping lovers, while their pals (and sometime bandmates) in Broken Social Scene have mounted a large-scale international takeover.
But with Set Yourself On Fire, their third full-length album and first for the newly created Arts & Crafts International/DKD co-venture, Stars are all about blowing everything to bits and starting from scratch. It's not as fatalistic - or as drastic - as it sounds, though. In this case, the whole up-in-flames motif is less about arson and more about rising phoenixes, rebirth and reinvention.
This time 'round, instead of holing up in a tiny bedroom near Mile-End in Montreal, multi-instrumentalists Evan Cranley and Chris Seligman along with frontman/lyricist Torquil Campbell, co-frontwoman Amy Millan and drummer Pat McGee took over a cabin in North Hatley, in Quebec's Eastern Townships last winter.
While the details of their time in the wilderness are sketchy (Millan's said it was an experience akin to scenes from The Shining), the going consensus is that North Hatley was as insane as it was productive.
Along with opening up their almost claustrophobically pretty soft pop sound, the band has subtly woven a fierce anti-Bush, anti-war backbone into lyrics about letting go of ex-lovers and fucking in stairwells. The result is a rallying cry that's as much about clever, caustic wit as a Toby Keith tune is about ham-handed flag-waving.
"A lot of people probably miss the political content of the record. Well, fuck 'em!" laughs the outspoken Campbell. "No, no. I wanted it that way. If you make things too blatant, too overt and too explicit, then they become dated quite quickly. The whole point is that you can't engage in any kind of political revolution without understanding love and its importance.
"Don't get me wrong - screaming 'Shit on Bush!' can be great, too, but we've approached writing songs from a certain perspective from the beginning, and when you fall into that rhythm, it's hard to stop. We make ourselves subterranean. It takes you a while, but when you feel it, you feel it deep."
It's hard not to feel deep love for a man who spits the should-be-a-classic Bush slag "I hope your drunken daughters are gay!" in SYOF's angular dirge He Lied About Death. The hyperdramatic Campbell, who's notorious for his onstage one-liners and darkly funny lyrics, claims he drew inspiration while working on the album from the way hiphop "acknowledges its audience." Rather than simply showing off self-reflexive wit, he says he hopes to engage listeners in a conversation.
There's a kind of specificity to some of the songs that, for kids of a certain age, resonates like weird generational-zeitgeist-repressed memories. There are the K-Way jackets and Velvets references on the gorgeous Beach Boys-ish Soft Revolution, and details like sucking freezies and shuffling uncomfortably to Tainted Love on the 10-years-later narrative Reunion, which delightfully incorporates the hook from Van Halen's Jump.
As Campbell notes, the sound of the record is also more accessible. Where 2003's Heart achieved a hibernatory beauty swathed in layers of cotton wool and synthy pop, SYOF is rawer and far bolder in its arrangements.
"In Cranley's terms, or Chris's terms, they wanted to make a record they could actually play live," explains Campbell. "They fussed over Heart. It was a record filled with doubt, and they sat in a room and fiddled with a computer. With this one, they got very active and never looked back."