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Stellastarr* – Harmonies for the Haunted

So to you, dance-rock fan who has not heard Stellastarr*’s debut album, I can wholeheartedly recommend Harmonies for the Haunted.

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Dear Stellastarr* fan,

Have you ever met a person, and had them just blow you away completely? They were so funny, eloquent, and just amazing that you not only had to introduce them to your friends, but also hyped up this person to your friends for weeks in advance?  Finally when they all met this person, they turned out to be … well … ok … I guess. They maybe occasionally showed traces of the extraordinary person they were before, but you were left wondering “What? Why did they change?” Meet Stellastarr*’s new album, Harmonies for the Haunted. It’s everything you loved about Stellastarr*- the four on the floor dance beats, the astonishing voice of singer Shawn Christensen and superbly understated and well played bass and drum work, only less special. 

It’s best to start with the music. While on their first self-titled disc, Stellastarr* were playing the same type of disco revival as many of their peers, they played it with such reckless abandon and sense of fun that you couldn’t help but dance to their messy, fractured, loud songs. Here, everything is a bit more controlled. Take, for example lead single “Sweet Troubled Soul.” Looked at from one angle, it is a perfect disco-rock song, moody, composed, and also fun. Looked at in the context of Stellastarr*, the track is a letdown. The production is far too polished, and the tracks lacks the personality that made the last Stellastarr* album so much fun. It is ever worse to get glimpses of their past height in songs like the all-too-brief “Born in a Flea Market,” only to have that place overtaken by the horribly average “When I Disappear”, a synth-pop song not even fit for The Bravery, much less this band. Harmonies for the Haunted is filled with loud synthesizer and steady bass lines, miles away from the loopy bass and guitar driven songs of their first album.

It’s not that the lyrics are that bad, but rather that last time, it didn’t matter.  Whether clever (“We’re lying / We’ve lied to you / We’ve lied to make our point of view” from “Pulp Song”) or just weird (“Oh my God she’ll be coming after you in the summertime HEY! HEY! HEY!” from “Jenny”), the lyrics on Stellastarr*’s first album were always unique, and never detracted from the feel of the songs. Here, Christensen’s muse leads him to clichés like, “Before you go / I just wanted you to know / I will never feel the same” (the chorus of “Precious Games”), and “I don’t wanna stay / and she don’t wanna leave” from “Island Lost At Sea”.

It is not that Harmonies for the Haunted is an outright failure. Its equivalent to De La Soul’s leap between 3 Feet High and Rising and De La Soul is Dead, in which the group received massive hype for an original sound on their first disc, and decided to sidestep that sound on their follow-up. I really want to recommend this disc, as only two or three of the songs warrant skipping over on repeated listens. But if you loved their first CD enough to play it regularly up until Harmonies… was released, I must warn you, this is a very different, and slightly diminished Stellastarr*.


Dear Killers/Bravery/Franz Ferdinand fan,

Have you ever met one of your friends’ friends, and had that person just blow you away totally?  I mean, your friend might be cool, but this person is funnier, wittier, and much more fun to be around.  Meet Stellastarr*’s new album, Harmonies for the Haunted. It’s everything you love about mopey disco rock, only quirkier. Whether in the bizarre Bryne-like vocals of Shawn Christensen, or the tight bass and drum work of Amanda Tannen and Arthur Kremer, there is a lot for you to love about this disc.

It’s best to start with the music. While songs like first single “Sweet Troubled Soul” might sound like something you’ve heard before, listen closely to the offbeat bass pattern, or Christensen’s emotive voice or the background “oohs” of Tannen and you’ll see why Stellastarr* are different. They even slow things down, on songs like the melancholy opener “Lost in Time,” and provide a smooth transition from ass-shakers to slow dance numbers.

It’s not that the lyrics are that bad, but rather that, in all honesty, you probably don’t care too much. You’ve rocked away to the Killers singing about boyfriends who look like girlfriends, and have submitted to even the most simple pick up lines (“C’mon- TAKE ME OUT!”) when their said by well coiffed Scottish men. And when you least suspect it, Stellastarr* even go a level deeper, like on the frenzied “Born in a Flea Market,” which chronicles a young kid growing up with a deadbeat, never-there dad. But you probably won’t even realize- the song is such a hypnotizing dance track, the lyrics will probably fade into the mix.

It’s how all the elements of Stellastarr* come together so smoothly that separate Harmonies for the Haunted from the pack. It’s the counterbalance of Christensen’s jumpy voice and Bassist Amanda Tannen’s angelic croon. It’s how they manage to make dance songs without constantly falling back on a disco beat. It’s how this album is lyrically, about as sorrowful as you can imagine, but that still won’t matter because the songs function so well.

So to you, dance-rock fan who has not heard Stellastarr*’s debut album, I can wholeheartedly recommend Harmonies for the Haunted

For those fans of the band who have, well…

(RCA Records)

Reviews

Crossed Keys – Saviors

Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds

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Crossed Keys Saviors

Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.

Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.

For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.

(Hellminded Records)

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Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”

A glorious sound of a time gone by

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Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.

I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).

To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.

Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.

While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.

Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.

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