The Sad Robots EP is currently a digital release, and not a hugely weighty one: There's an introductory track, there's a rather pristine live version of early Stars song "Going, Going, Gone", and there are four new songs, one of which isn't pretending to be much beyond a brief diversion. Still, it's convenient that Stars will have physical copies of this set to take along and sell during their fall tour. The music here burns slow and then smolders-- not unlike the piles of autumn leaves (under cold gray skies!) that dot the lyrics-- and it's easy to imagine this music serving, for a lot of concertgoers, as a wistful memento of That Cold Night We Saw Stars. That, after all, is exactly the role Stars want to play, if not in your life then in someone's: The band that makes the records you clutch to your chest like a prep-school misfit in a 1980s movie, the band that cuts out the construction-paper heart you wear on your sleeve. They make records that get down on their knees and beg to get quoted in someone's yearbook.
That's a perfectly fine target, and I'm not sure I'd mind if more indie bands shot for it. (Teenagers should stare out their windows and cry, and if the right fog or snow or Stars song lets them imagine they're doing it someplace more magical than they are, then god bless fog and snow and Stars.) One of the things that can keep Stars from hitting this mark, though, is that their songs sometimes lack a real sense of ache, any real pull at the center of all their drama-- and what ache is in there sometimes feels rosy and nostalgic and knowing, like it's only a shorthand reference to aches from old Cure and Depeche Mode records. The great thing about the first 16 minutes of this insanely autumnal EP: They have the ache all over them.
So maybe it's still a bit referential: The characters in the best song here, "A Thread Cut with a Carving Knife", slum around in depressed inaction, unable to break up, to follow through on suicide plans, to make the suicide plans in the first place. Torquil Campbell sings about one of them drinking herself to sleep with shoes still on, and they feel like textbook sketches in 80s haircuts. But between its slow pulse and burst-of-grandeur choruses, the song finds something real in there, and Amy Millan comes in with the yearbook quotes for a regal finish, some reassuring lilting about the fragility of life and the value of tomorrows. It's one of the band's best songs-- one of the best at getting the effect they usually seem to want. And since Sad Robots is nothing if not coherent, that's followed by another sedate and lovely pulse ("Undertow"), and that slips into a synth-washed version of "Going, Going, Gone" that's insanely affecting: glacial, womblike, full of lonesome shudders, and gorgeous enough that it takes a half-dozen listens to notice the copies of Disintegration the musicians are hiding behind their backs.
The package would probably seem better if it ended on that choked-up high point, and lopped off the six minutes that follow. The title track is an agreeable enough two minutes, a folky, blocky diversion that tries to get a little too much mileage out of the interchangeable French verb for raining and crying ("Il pleut, il pleut/ Je pleur, je pleur"). But for the bulk of that time, a cheery trifle called "14 Forever" prompts a question Stars should probably prefer you don't ask-- whether they write these things on behalf of teenagers or whether they still earnestly want to be them. After some time with this EP, I'm no longer sure which of those suits them more-- whether they get this ache out better when they're trying to capture it from the outside, or recapture it from somewhere within.