February 25, 2006
Living in New York and spending all day staring at a damn computer screen, it’s easy to lose perspective and start thinking that indie-rock is actually huge, that the soundtrack to Garden State has the same cultural reverberations that the soundtrack to The Crow had when you were in middle school, that Franz Ferdinand is the new U2 and the Arctic Monkeys have a hope in hell of blowing up in the US and junior investment bankers in exurban Kansas totally check out Lastnightsparty.com when their bosses aren’t in the office. In this self-congratulatory feedback loop, it’s easy to forget that Disturbed and Staind still sell more records than the Arcade Fire, that they probably always will. So maybe Stars can sell out Webster Hall crazy in advance, maybe they can step out onstage and look back and thousands of kids singing their words back to them, but that doesn’t mean Middle America has any idea who they are. It doesn’t. Maybe it never will.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not pretty amazing that they’ve made it this far. In the grand scheme of the current wave of Shins-will-change-life dewy-eyed indie, Stars are strictly B-team, “the eighth most important band from Canada,” as Zach Baron just said to me. And yet there they were, in front of this huge and rapturous audience, beams of colored light moving around behind them, frontman Torquil Campbell saying stuff like “Thanks for making all our dreams come true.” So at least in one city, at one moment, in one big-ass club in front of one very happy crowd, the band’s name became literal.
There are all sorts of cultural forces at work here: the current crop of big indie bands going for a warm-fuzzy non-confrontational shrug, the internet making it easy to find bands like this, the old networks of zines and college radio giving way to iTunes and Gray’s Anatomy. But fuck it, I’d prefer to think that Stars are as big as they are because they’re absolutely great, the one example of indie’s big wave that absolutely hits me where I live and reduces me to puddles, the collected works of St. Etienne as interpreted by Superchunk, Rainer Maria taking singing lessons and finding a violin player and some keyboards and deciding to become New Order. The band’s 2004 album Set Yourself on Fire is just this side of perfect, swirling and jangling and soaring and cascading exactly when it should. Onstage as on record, they’re all sweep and swoon, huge crescendos of light-bending melody welling up and crashing down, Campbell’s sad-bitchy half-English croon rubbing up against Amy Millan’s deliriously elegant countrypolitan swoops, trumpets and tubas and glistening dance keyboards all hitting at the exact right moments. Campbell dances dizzily and awkwardly enough that you just know he was a drama nerd in high school (and according to this here, he’s been on Law and Order and Law and Order: SVU, so he totally was). Millan overdresses in a Pat Benetar miniskirt and big leather high-heel boots, almost like she’s trying to compete with Karen O just because the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing on the same night. The rest of the band hides out in the wings, behind big banks of keyboards or beards or whatever, letting these two hog the spotlight. They cover “Hungry Heart” and throw the YYYs’ “Modern Romance” into one of their own jams, and the gooey idealism of these songs totally fits with their own. And if this new big wave of yuppie-indie fuzz-pop means I get more bands like this in my life, then I’m stopping hating starting right now. It’s enough to make a dude forget all about Lil Wayne for a couple of minutes.
Stream: “Reunion” video