Most bands are easy to reference. If you like Interpol, chances are you'll be just as depressed listening to Joy Division. Like Bob Dylan? There's been a "new Dylan" every year since 1963. Even The Strokes were initially pegged as Velvet Underground wannabes until they learned how to play their instruments.
The band Stars, however-like their Montreal brethren The Arcade Fire-seem to come without obvious precursors. Their lush musical arrangements and male-female vocals have gotten them labeled everything from "orchestral indie" to "dream pop."
They're the type of band that, if you're hell-bent on describing them, you'll find yourself using the words "but" and "if" a lot. As in, "Think Sonic Youth if they had been as musically structured as New Order, but only if New Order had lived next door to The Cure, but if and only if The Cure had really been influenced by Fleetwood Mac and ABBA."
"A lot of people throw this word "lovers rock' around," remarked Evan Cranley, who, depending on the song, serves as Stars' guitarist, bassist and/or brass section. "I like when people say that."
If you don't analyze the lyrics (which can be quite depressing), "lovers rock" works just fine. They're the perfect second-date band-a soundtrack for your diminishing awkwardness. Not quite intimate, but intimately tender.
After recording and releasing their first album while living in New York, the original quartet of Cranley, vocalist-guitarist Amy Millan, vocalist-keyboardist Torquil Campbell and keyboardist-string arranger Chris Seligman decided to move to Montreal. Since they were all Canadians sojourning in the U.S., the move made sense financially. As Cranley pointed out, it was also an aesthetic move.
"Montreal had a huge influence on our sound-a trust that we couldn't find in any place before," he explained. "I like to think that Heart [their second album] is trying to express the feeling of living in Montreal. "
While 2002's Heart made a modest splash in indie-rock circles, it was last year's Set Yourself On Fire that really got them noticed south of the northern border. It was released just as the press was beginning to become hysterical about a "Canadian invasion." Rolling Stone called the album "a homemade valentine to youth and the idea of true love" and chose it as one of their "Top 50 Records of the Year." It was a nod above their literal neighbors-The Dears and Broken Social Scene (in which Millan is also a member)-who also released acclaimed records in 2005.
On first listen, the difference between Heart and Fire seems negligible, but closer inspection reveals how the music on Fire is fuller, more luxuriant. The call-and-response style of Millan and Campbell's vocals on songs like "The Big Fight" and "What I'm Trying to Say" seems remarkably well-suited for the anfractuous, electro-symphonic backgrounds. Cranley said this was certainly the intention.
"We really wanted to make something with a lot of ornamentation, a lot of strings and horns and super-lush arrangements-a lot of bravado. We wanted to do our big record."
Despite the accolades and incessant touring, Stars seems to be incapable of sitting back and enjoying the moment. Before the release of their fourth studio album, fans should also see a remix album, a side project from Campbell and a country-influenced solo record from Millan. As for the risk of overexposure? Well, it's better than people not knowing your name.
"It's a good thing when people are sick of seeing your face in the paper," Cranley said. "That's when you know you're doing a good job."
Stars play with The Elected at The Casbah on Feb. 12. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. $10. 619-232-HELL.