CD Review: stellastarr*, “Civilized”
by Ken Shane
In the grand rock and roll tradition of bands who met in art school — in this case Pratt Institute in New York City — along comes stellastar* with their third album, Civilized (Bloated Wife Records). Though the band would probably like to be thought of as cutting edge, there’s something determinedly (and appealingly) old-fashioned about this undertaking.
Shedding the major label deal that they had for their first two albums (actually, given the way things are these days, it’s likely that RCA shed them), the band has gone back to basics, and released the new album on its own label. Responding to what they felt was a need for people to dance and have fun, Civilized is more upbeat than the more atmospheric Harmonies for the Haunted, which they released in 2005. According to guitarist Michael Jurin, “on this one it felt right to make upbeat music. We wanted to have more fun with it, although an undertone of darkness is there as well.”
“Freak Out” features the staccato vocals of frontman Shawn Christensen delivered over a martial beat, and a chorus informed by U2 and Arcade Fire. Mandy Tannen’s bass parts are not prominent enough in the mix on several songs, including this one, which is somewhat puzzling as she’s obviously an accomplished player. “Prom Zombie” is, as you might imagine from its title, just plain fun, with drummer Arthur Kremer laying down a dance beat, and Tannen and Christensen harmonizing on the vocals. It’s one of those songs that will have you pogoing along in the privacy of your home.
It’s easy to see why stellastarr* were critics’ darlings upon arrival: Their sound is right out of the dingy basement clubs of New York City that the critics love to frequent. It’s been four years since their last release, but they’ve delivered a bouncy, upbeat album full of fuzzy guitars, thudding bass, propulsive drumming, and largely indecipherable lyrics. In other words, the recipe for further critical acclaim. I don’t know about acclaim from me, but it’s a fun pop record, and a refreshing break from all of the breathless dirges that I’ve been listening to recently.