Harmonies for the Haunted
’m a fool of sharp absurdities, a dandy in the Haussman gaslight, an idiot flaneur. It’s a talent, one that coats the wheel for re-recreationism in music. I tell you this, I share this with you, mainly because I enjoyed Stellastarr*’s eponymous debut record more than most reviewers. So I want you to take what I say with a rock of salt. And also because I house a quiet alarum for most record reviews, especially those more snarky than sharp, the post-modern trend that cultivates sharp tongues and dull brains. I recognized, reckless and slightly bent, that it was one of the best debut records of the last ten years. I stand by my idiocy. I think it’s grand.
And yet, upon first listen, I was disappointed by their sophomore effort, Harmonies for the Haunted. Much like British Sea Power’s similarly shaded follow-up earlier this year, they seemed to have scooped out all the foul noises and gritty spasticity that gave their debut such terrific depth. This was a sadistic haunt stripped bare of pits and arias, content to glide the static passions and unmoved glare. I heard, in those shaved edges, the sound of a band too mature for its own good, and far too even-keeled for adoration. Popular notion had rusted these cogs, and it gave their music a timeless, and perhaps unnecessary, flaking, a cruel aborted swing more friction that fluidity.
So I sat on it. More than that, I gave it up. Stellastarr* had failed me, and after shouting to the hills to everyone I met that their debut needed another listen, regardless of tepid reviews and wait-for-number-two predictions, I went mum. But, weeks later, as the summer fell sharp, from pulp to razor, I played it again. I felt chafed, after all that time hoping I was, oh, something with a fucking beat again. Anyone who’s shared in my columns/reviews in the past year and a half knows this tale. You’ll surely insist ‘this has no place here.’ I’m sure you, too, feel chafed at the mere mention of that meta-story.
But it shoulders a weight I bring to this record, one I hope buries the sheer bulge of what is ultimately Stellastarr*’s shadowy joie de vivre. ‘Cause as much as we feign objectivity, a vague insistence worthy of lip service but no lip, we can never really dodge our own skeletons. Nobody sheds themselves for the sake of a record. Music wouldn’t hold us if we did, and Stellastarr* places themselves on the firing line, with openly emotive choruses and slit-heart poesie. They waiver on the tip of sticky diary-isms, but show enough spine to keep them upright.
Opener “Lost in Time” blinks through the candlelight, soft pianos and grand, up-sweeping guitar chords like Coldplay might record were Martin more concerned with sour oranges than Apples. Squealing guitar lines run over the top of Shawn Christensen’s gothic vocals. There’s an epic grandeur here that the band manages to maintain through the moping squall of strings and choruses on “Damn This Foolish Heart.”
As the record urges its wintry mood, it begins to coalesce into a solid mortar of rigid guitars and frosted pyrotechnics. Stellastarr* pushes its new grasp of tension and release, and the album shows their increased sense of cohesion. “On My Own” crumbles dry into a withered ballad of guitars and reverbed vocals. Christensen sounds like he was recorded somewhere between life and the great-whatever-else, his elegant croon set against the band’s placid reserve. At times, Stellastarr* felt like a series of well-executed songs developed through the tenure of a bar-band, more collection than record. Harmonies for the Haunted fills those pitted weights with a raspy sense of momentum, fulfilling fans’ hopes for a fully-formed, dynamic record.
Certainly, moments arise on Harmonies for the Haunted where you’re still and blind (the bland “When I Disappear” and the crude lyricism of “Sweet Troubled Soul” spring to mind), uncertain you’ve moved or heard a syllable across vague minutes. You can’t help but notice their taste for histrionics. You know the song. Broken China dolls and stoic orbs, fuck those marble eyes. Stellastarr*. But their vapor noise rubs across my late summer, and I find it hard to imagine a better record coming along to time the fall of papered leaves. These are the rainbow-presses from your childhood, the moments when you smudged sworl against your ‘lids and made yourself swim, vague and well-sheltered ‘cause you’re only your ears, your sweaty eyes, and your fingers.