The fifth album by Montreal’s Stars, is very much the brainchild of producer Tom McFall (Snow Patrol, Bloc Party). One of McFall’s first producing gigs was Stars’ still high watermark Set Yourself on Fire in 2004, but the 2010 version of the Stars/McFall marriage has dispensed with that album’s warmth and clarity, baroque instrumentation and egalitarian focus on all five members. In its place is a myopic use of cold, insular synthesisers, anaemic drum programming and a spotlight on only one vocalist.
Sure, the concept of Stars and synth-pop is not totally foreign; their first album was built around cheap synths and their next two follow-ups also featured electronics heavily but these were largely eschewed on their last album In Your Bedroom After the War which expanded their epic pop into genres such as white funk and soul. But if that album was seen by some as overreaching then The Five Ghosts is a definite contraction.
There are strong cuts on the new LP, almost all with Amy Millan on lead. “Wasted Daylight” is enjoyable, saccharin indie-dance, the type of which Saint Etienne used to deliver and it’s no surprise that “Fixed” is the first single. The song, full of shimmering synths and shoegaze guitars, is a mix of New Order, Lush and clever wordplay — props to Amy for rhyming fisticuffs with “fixed to cut”. Less engaging is “Changes”, essentially a ‘50s rock’n’roll heartbreaker set to a simple Casio keyboard backing. Her other ballad “Winter Bones” is darkly beautiful and closes the album in appropriate chilling fashion.
The tracks on which both Amy and Torquil Campbell share vocal duties generally follow a similar formula: a lacklustre hushed speak-sing verse from Torq, who sounds like he was in another room from the microphone, before Amy swoops in to save the song to with a mellifluous melody over a catchy keyboard riff . Exceptions to this rule is the sordid tale of a couple in London, “We Don’t Your Body”, which gives Torquil some much needed limelight and “Dead Hearts” which has him, backed by strings and piano, quizzing Millan about the ghosts she has seen in a nice call and response duet. Unfortunately Torquil’s vocals also get short shrift on the numbers where he takes full reigns and it’s difficult to reconcile his Morrissey like roar or Bee Gees falsetto from the last album with his emasculated efforts here. “He Dreams He’s Awake” is an epic electro-ballad that builds in intensity with layers of synth, guitar and backing vox that makes the song into something of an endurance test while “The Last Song Ever Written” sees some of the familiar emoting of yore but again Torq’s voice sounds emaciated.
Credit to the band for trying something different at this stage in the game — it’s easy to imagine producer and band brainstorming “like M83… but poppier!” — Stars were always a team effort though and The Five Ghosts, great as it is in some places, feels like it should be credited to “Tom McFall and Amy Millan with special guest Stars”. The ghost concept doesn’t help either, proving less engaging compared to their usual songs about love and hate. Towards the end of the disc Campbell sings: “Melody is over and done/All of the words we sing erase each other/You only need songs when you’re young” but Stars should know you need good melodies, good songs, and good production at every stage of your career.