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When there's nothing left to burn, look to Stars

Yet another fantastic product of the Montreal pop scene delivers a lush album of warmth and melancholy, Canadian-style.
/ Source: msnbc.com

Man, right now there is something smart and shiny and good in the water in Montreal.

The Stars share a hometown with the Arcade Fire, the Dears, Broken Social Scene and the recently defunct Unicorns, among others. The whole scene is tweaking old recipes and creating something new and tasty. Maybe it’s that Canada actually gives grants to talented musicians to explore whatever they want. On their third album, the Stars explore imperfect love and how it sounds on a bed of crisp green electropop.

A man’s voice opens the album: “When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” It makes me laugh every time. You know when you’ve stopped laughing and you can still feel your face holding this in-between expression before you move on to whatever’s next? That’s what this album is like. You're smiling along with the melody and the sweet voices, then a lyric rolls along that steals the wind right out of your sails: “I'll write you a postcard I'll send you the news / From the house down the road from real love.” It stings a little, but it's so pretty. And that wistful quality keeps "Set Yourself On Fire" from tipping into maudlin. 

Just when you get a little bummed about life, the Stars take you back to your youth in “Reunion” or into the streets in “Soft Revolution .” And there's something just so viscerally right about doing "The Robot" to the verses of ”What I'm Trying to Say.” (Scoff now, but try not dancing when you're listening in traffic.) The electronic beats and feedback never overwhelm the melodic,  romantic songwriting. The production is very slick, but the layers of violins and strummy guitar keep the album human and warm.

Where “Set Yourself on Fire” loses me is when it veers into political proselytizing. The rest of the album is so personal that a song like “He Lied about Death” sounds scattershot by comparison. The softer “Celebration Guns” is undeniably moving. But with the thematic link of intimate love running through so many of the songs, it seems like anti-Bush and anti-war rants belong somewhere else.

The moments where the Stars really shine are in the episodes of he said/she said storytelling, where Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan's voices work so beautifully together, sometimes sounding like different registers of the same vocal.

On “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead,” they paint a picture of unrequited love from both sides. “The Big Fight” plays out as a bluesy, nihilistic kind of “Baby, It's Cold Outside,” with Campbell and Millan trading lines and barbs with a gentle, breathless quality. It’s the kind of thing that makes you lean in closer on a first date - a magical, hopeful feeling that keeps me returning to this album again and again.

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