STARS with METRIC and BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Friday (September 28). $10. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
it's been a month since i talked with Torquil Campbell and Chris Seligman, members of the swoon-pop Stars. A shaken Campbell calls me from the band's retreat/studio in the countryside outside Montreal, where the group is working on their forthcoming sophomore disc. A week after the World Trade Center horror, the singer is having a hard time coming to terms with what's happened and where being a pop singer fits into the world.
He's concerned that the stuff he said earlier about being stylish and beautiful seems inconsequential and maybe even flippant now. As it turns out, his concerns only reinforce what he insists Stars are all about.
"It's just such a different place now," Campbell whispers. "We've been living in this culture of cataclysm and darkness. What we want to do as a band is try and inject some degree of beauty into the world.
"Irony is such a dead end. We just played with this band called I Am The World Trade Center. They're this incredibly twee, synth-pop band, and I'm sure the title was thought up in a kind of cosmopolitan, quirky way. Now, it's possibly the deepest band name of all time.
"It's a strange time to be a pop musician."
Their own band handle has more than a hint of swagger, but the Stars look set to live up to it.
At a time when pure pop music is met with a dismissive shrug, the Stars are the real article. They offer straight-up, sing-along tunes that worm themselves into your brain midway through the first listen. And they proudly proclaim, "Long live the soft revolution" on the sleeve of their swishy Nightsongs debut.
The Montreal-by-way-of-New-York foursome all grew up in Toronto. Fabulously named vocalist Torquil Campbell is a Smiths-obsessed actor who does Shakespeare for fun and has appeared on Sex And The City, Law & Order and as the voice of the cartoon character Bill Badger.
Multi-instrumentalist Stars co-founder Chris Seligman is a classically trained perfectionist obsessed with creating loping, lurching beats for bassist Evan Cranley and guitarist Amy Millan to strum over.
The balance between the swooning, soft pop songs and Campbell's dark lyrics on 2000's Nightsongs sounds unlike anything else in Canadian pop. The group's confident slouch through the Smiths' This Charming Man also seems dead casual, but don't let that fool you.
"It takes a lot of effort to make something this effortless-sounding," laughs Campbell at our earlier interview, slurping soup on a College Street patio.
He's not joking. Campbell and Seligman have been pals since they were eight, and began putting together the blueprint of what Stars would eventually sound like when they were living in Brooklyn in the late 90s.
Nightsongs, the home-recorded album that followed, captures a particular era in pop music. Like the soft swing of St. Etienne, Stars reach back to the escapist pop of the 80s, using blooping synths, primitive drum machines and jangling guitar lines, but without sounding retro -- and minus the funny haircuts.
"I had an incredibly specific manifesto. He didn't, though," Campbell offers, nodding at a bemused Seligman. "Chris is a musician. I'm a fan. I grew up obsessed with music, but I had a special emotional connection to a special kind of music.
"I love English pop music from the 80s and early 90s. That's the purest moment of music for me, people like the Smiths, the Bodeans, Aztec Camera and Orange Juice. I wanted to live in that world because it was where I felt beautiful. I wanted to create something of my own that would put me there, and that's what Stars became."
That focused vision extends to the people Campbell and Seligman eventually drafted to turn Stars from a bedroom hobby to a full-time band.
"Everyone has to love the Smiths," Campbell snorts. "No Smiths, no Stars."
The direction is even more streamlined on Stars' new EP, The Comeback. Rather than expanding the group's sound, the five-song single simply refines it even further. A wavering saxophone is the sole extent of their experimentation.
"I'm not a big fan of wild eclecticism," Campbell quips. "We've already done our drugs."
"There are several things that define this band," Millan adds. "Why would we want to mess with that? There's nothing wrong with having your own sound."
If Stars seem out of step with the pierced- eyebrow set and the dour aggro that passes for pop music these days, it's true. The gap between Stars and Staind is more than just a few letters on your CD shelf.
"There's a kind of apology in everything our generation does," Campbell erupts. "We cut ourselves off at the knees constantly. Yes, the result of that has been some incredibly beautiful music, and sure, there are plenty of ironists who are great musicians and make great records.
"I feel like art is a public service, though. It's something you're supposed to do for the community. It's supposed to elevate your life and make you feel lighter and more beautiful and like the world is a beautiful place. It's not one particular kind of music, but more the attitude that we go into it with.
"We don't want it to be funny or angry. We want it to be beautiful."
Yet despite a not particularly receptive climate for self-described "beautiful music," a small, tight-knit community of like-minded quiet rockers has begun to emerge across the country.
Rising easy-pop bands like Stars, Montreal's the Dears and locals Broken Social Scene praise each other in interviews and turn up on each other's albums, all the while being supported by club nights like Blow-Up and International Colouring Contest.
Maybe the idea of a Soft Revolution isn't so far-fetched after all.
"There are people all over the world who are waiting for music like this," Seligman nods. "From DJs to kids in Sweden, people have been really supportive of what we do, and that surprised me. It's different, but that's the point."
"What's truly awesome for me is that for the first time in my life, I'm involved with other musicians who are Canadian that I think I have a lot in common with," Campbell shrugs. "When I was growing up, the only Canadian band I listened to was Five Guys Named Moe."