Album Review: stellastarr* – Civilized

stellastarr* was always a different band. Bursting on to the scene in 2005 with their mission statement, “In The Walls,” the New York rockers featured punctuating guitar, a vocal performance flitting between falsetto and baritone bellow, perfectly executed vocal harmonies and the war cry: “Go, go, go, goooo!”. It was certainly intriguing.

Big things beckoned. Personal backing from Carson Daly and respected taste-makers including Rolling Stone and NME set the stage for their debut, stellastarr*. They found fans through their brave interpretation of new wave, even breaking barriers by finding their way (and many new fans) onto video game soundtracks. They fired across the bow with three original music videos, riffing on puppetry, karaoke and Polaroids.

However, their second album, Harmonies For The Haunted, was far too introverted to work as a commercial proposition. Whilst arguably superior to their debut, the reception was muted, especially when coupled with a bizarre copy-protection threat that reduced sales (fans weren’t satisfied as they may not be able to share the music).

Civilized, the band’s third full-length, is released on personal imprint Bloated Wife Records, following a hiatus of four years. The official story says that the band left RCA Records, but bizarrely this is its most media frenzied release to date. I expected the parting of ways to be over creative differences but still, despite the pre-packaging, this is not an ‘easy’ album. Crossover hits are unlikely, but I always felt as if stellastarr* were happy being cult figures anyway.

I am still captivated by Shawn Christensen’s wholly original voice. The versatility is incredible, often jumping between screams, a powerful bellow and falsetto, although he has always been most comfortable in the lower ranges. On Civilized, he had to switch things up:

“I had to alter the intonation of my voice. I will be singing in a higher register for the most part, where I would normally go to a lower one.”

This is certainly true on “Robot”, the frenetic opener. After an opening barrage of thrashing guitars and incessant drumming, Christensen’s coos in: “Oooh, by design”, a perfectly pitched alto vocal. “Freak Out” veers back towards familiar territory with a steady drawl and backing vocals from bassist Amanda Tannen, who is, it has to be said, super cool, doling out thumping basslines and vocals with ease. She is underused here.

Lead single “Graffiti Eyes” is weak. This is a very gimmicky number, full of “heys” “no!” and rhyming couplets. The delivery is scatty without any real punch. Christensen decides to ‘rap’, which is a decision that I simply cannot love.

Thankfully, the rest of the album is well executed, notably “Tokyo Sky”, a song that could easily have been on the soundtrack to Garden State. “Prom Zombie” is just fun because it serves as a notable change. For much of the album, they seem tied between cutting loose and being serious. On the occasions when they decide where they stand, the material is excellent. The album closer “Sonja Cries” is surprisingly moving by heavily relying on the delay pedal and uplifting harmonies.

The record is produced by Tim O’Heir, who plays a completely different role than he did on their debut. This has been packaged for sales, as Christensen put it: “faster, less mid-tempo. More energy, more rock, slightly more aggressive.” The sound is less forced, although in doing so the risks have been taken out of the equation. You’d be mean to hold that against the band though, having seen their career trajectory. There are already signs of sorriness that show on the day of its release, as it’s currently retailing for $3.99 on Amazon… and that really says it all. The price does not fit the quality or the ambition of what stellastarr* is trying to achieve.

Civilized is competent, and surprisingly well produced. stellastarr* is living in its own shadows, however, and nothing here comes very close to the genius of their debut. It’s just safe. The glossy sheen of “commercial viability” permeates through this whole record, affecting its quality, but thankfully having no influence on the fun factor. Roll down the windows, forget the new-wave influences, and just have some fun.

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