stellastarr* wants to school ya: It takes an educated ear to recognize the many musical influences this band culls from. Don’t, however, attempt to call their music nerd rock. Their new-wave-based sound, which incorporates both subdued and hard elements of indie rock along with smartly delivered, post-punk-inflected vocals, is consistent and listenable, and although the ’80s new wave vibe is breathing heavily down the necks of New Yorkers, it is still welcome at a time when less creative Strokes-ian garage rock rules the radio.
A New York-born quartet, stellastarr* arose from Ghistor, a band with a grunge-influenced, Weezer-type sound. Formed in the late ’90s by students at the Pratt Institute of the Arts, the band broke up after graduation, and three Ghistor veterans—Shawn Christensen (vocals, guitar), Amanda Tanner (bass, vocals), and Arthur Kremer (percussion)—created stellastarr* with Michael Jurin, formerly of the indie rock group Charlotte’s Funeral. stellastarr*’s sound isn’t esoteric, as might be expected from a bunch of art-school graduates, and what makes their music so irresistibly intriguing is Christensen’s voice: It is sharp and almost comical in its tone, and when he hits higher notes, it sounds as if he’s an ’80s music-video scientist chirping out sequenced quips. Yet it melds with the high, poppy background vocals of Tanner in melodic perfection. This is especially true when the band performs live: Tanner’s vocals serve as a steady anchor while Christensen thrashes through sets, gazing upward as he wails through his lyrics, his body shaking as songs come to their close.
On Somewhere Across Forever, their debut EP from Tiswas Records, stellastarr* recombine their indie, new wave, and punk influences, proving themselves to be ultimately genre-less. “No Weather,” a grinding guitarist’s affair smoothed over by Tanner’s bouncing vocals, is draped in post-punk attitude, with measure after measure of three-chord patterns interrupted by Christensen’s intense but shaking repetition of the words “I can’t see/I can’t see no other.” On other songs, stellastarr* create surprises by combining simple, fairly quiet indie pop with a good dose of loud punk. “School Ya” hints at restraint with its calm, guitar-licked introduction (which, true to stellastarr*’s nature, is preceded by a single bombastic chord), and its emo-esque lyrics: “Way outside yourself, there’s/Someone out there/Who wants you to be free.”
The Pratt alumni have already played across the country, and are making their official debut as the opening band for Apples in Stereo at the Bowery Ballroom on February 7. Ever the Renaissance man, Christensen has also combined performances with gallery showings of his paintings, the last one at the Luna Lounge. stellastarr* are leading what some hope to be a more fruitful movement of modern new wave appreciation, and although retro seems to always be in style in New York (again, think garage rock), this band creates a much fresher sound that doesn’t bear any unwanted weight from the past.