It is mystifying to think that the immediate association one conjures up when confronted with the idea of pop music is the illiterate, cheeseball humdrum manufactured to satiate our most drab of senses. Yet underneath the rather thin bubblegum layer of the pop vernacular lies a truly rich history that sees its roots reach back to music’s earliest forms. And whether it is in the shape of rock, country, blues, soul, dance- or to some of the more traditional sounds of gospel or even the stage- pop music’s legacy is one that is intertwined with every aspect of our own. From Elvis recording his first single to when a seemingly outcast kid from Washington State wrote an anthem inspired by a deodorant stick, there has been no greater source for bringing together entire communities than popular music.
One of pop’s most endearing subjects has of course been love- the coming together of a more personal kind. Whether it is for the heart of another, for music itself, or some twisted, tangled tale of romance, love has been one of popular music’s thematic centerpieces touched upon time and time again by some of the most enduring artists in our musical history. For Montreal-based pop collective Stars, it has been no different. Their fantastic 2003 effort Heart began with each member’s declaration of it, and since their 2001 debut Nightsongs, they have never strayed too far from the comforts (and discomforts) of the subject. It has a lot to do with the sophisticated nature of their music- the softly hued strings, the chamber-like electronics, the charming dual vocals, all rolled together in lush orchestration- that undoubtedly becomes synonymous with our most ambitious imaginings of affection. And anyone who has heard “Elevator Love Letter” is sure to understand how effective they are at bringing across these emotions in a perfect three to four minute slice.
A little more than a year removed from Heart, Stars return with their latest offering, Set Yourself On Fire, and immediately set the tone with the single “Ageless Beauty.” Much like “Elevator Love Letter,” the track is buoyed by great pop sensibilities, addictive hooks, and Amy Millan’s sweetly tinged tone. Like it’s previous, it is the album’s finest offering, and further extends Stars’ rather immaculate track record at writing the picture-perfect pop song. However, while Heart is filled with an endless array of wonderful outings, Set Yourself On Fire is a rather more subdued effort. And while still filled with moments of brilliance, it is a little lacking in the charm and exuberance seen in the former. This isn’t to say the album isn’t without its gems; other than its preceding single we get the delicate touch of the closer “The Calender Girl,” a sad tale from the depths of loneliness buoyed by lyrical histrionics (“I dreamed I was dying as I so often do / and when I awoke I was sure it was true / I went to the window threw my head to the sky / said whoever is up there please don’t let me die”) and a remarkably beautiful instrumental palette.
These are the moments where they outshine their more recent counterparts. There seems to be an underlying sense of convention (mostly topical), yet they successfully meld them with some of music’s best forms of advancement. In “One More Night,” the grand beginnings of high-arching strings are a mere prelude to the delicate indie-pop leanings employed throughout the song. The balance found between Stars’ obvious tendency towards the modern aesthetic and their (the pun is very much unavoidable) love for popular music with soul is seamless. “Your Ex-Lover is Dead,” and “The Big Fight,” are great examples of this infusion of Marvin Gaye / Al Green sparked urban soul, and a big reason why they are so much more than the standard.
So how much better is Heart than Set Yourself On Fire? It’s enough to separate the two. The latter is by no means a poor effort, it is just without the additionally wonderful sparkles- tracks like “Life Effect,” and “Look Up” that made Heart just as enchanting to listen to during an afternoon stroll through a leaf-littered park as it is underneath an exquisite moon lit evening. Yet on a greater scale, it is not what is most important; what is perhaps most striking is the idea that the musicians involved here may possess that irresistible charm akin to some of music’s greatest affairs- an ageless beauty that sees Stars spearhead their self-professed “soft revolution.” Their latest then is like the sequel to that one incredible moment; more than capable of capturing the genuine quintessence of togetherness but never quite exploring the nervous passion and enthusiasm of that one timeless romance.
(Arts & Crafts)
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.