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Stars ablaze on stellar third record

Matthew Solarski | Thursday, March 3, 2005

Stars, a Montreal-based electro-pop band, by nature possess a multitude of extraordinary properties. In the fine tradition of Pixies, Liars, Panthers, Oxes and Owls, defy the definite article. The quartet, comprised of vocalist/keyboardist Torquil Campbell, vocalist/guitarist Amy Millan and multi-instrumentalists Evan Cranley and Chris Seligman, seems to shine exponentially brighter with each successive release. “Set Yourself on Fire” proves to be the combo’s most accomplished release to date, brimming with the warmest of harmonies, the most infectious of melodies and near peerless production.Stars entrance. Beginning with the mesmerizing opener, “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead,” Stars exerts a hold over the listener’s heart, with swelling strings underscoring Amy Millan’s frost-tinged, angelic vocals. Millan’s proclamation, “I’m not sorry there’s nothing to save,” subtly becomes “I’m not sorry; there’s nothing to save” just as the strings and drums rise to climax. “Ageless Beauty,” much like “Elevator Love Letter,” from Stars’ previous effort, immediately casts its spell over the listener and holds the room in trance for all of its four glorious minutes.Stars illuminate. The lyrical leap made by Campbell and company since their 2001 debut “Nightsongs” is easily their most stunning advancement. Here, Campbell and Millan deftly illustrate the proverbial ins and outs of love, life and current affairs with impeccable flair and sensitivity. On the down-tempo duet “The Big Fight,” the two trade vocals in a bedside dialogue, then align in lovely harmony. The charming “The First Five Times” is a wistful account of just that – the “first time,” euphemistically speaking, and the four thereafter, until “finally we rested.” Venture too close and Stars is apt to burn, as on the chilling “He Lied About Death,” a scathing invective against the sitting U.S. president. This jaw-dropping number showcases Stars at its most fiercely political, at one point rebuking the man in question as the “the shadow of fear.” Perhaps more efficacious is “Celebration Guns,” which trades on the cruel irony inherent in the titular phrase. Here, Millan asks, “How will you know your enemy? By their color or your fear?” to the tune of pensive strings and percussion made to sound like cannon fire. Of war’s casualties, she probes, “are the beating drums / celebration guns / the thunder and the laughter / the last thing they remember?”Amusingly, Stars too embody many of the same qualities commonly associated with stars of the sort born in Hollywood. The personalities of Campbell and Millan impress themselves indelibly upon the listener. The songs here exude an unmistakable charisma, and manage to be instantly catchy while begging repeat listens – indeed, only then do these pop confections reveal their true sophistication.Stars’ star is one that continues to rise. The quartet just garnered a Juno nomination for “Set Yourself on Fire” (the Junos being eons more astute than its stateside counterpart, the Grammys), and “The OC” and “Cosmo Girl” invariably loom on the horizon for these pop parvenus. For now, Stars has light-years of warmth to share with the lovelorn who gaze perennially skyward.