Stellastarr* – Harmonies for the Haunted

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)