Review Summary: After a promising but inconsistent debut, stellastarr* create a mature follow up with expression and atmosphere.
In 2003, a relatively unknown band from New York released their eponymous debut, Stellastarr*, raising eyebrows with their catchy pop-punk sound that was equal amounts The Talking Heads and The Killers. With tracks such as "In the Walls", "Jenny", and "My Coco" (the latter of which earned an appearance in EA's MLB 2004 video game), it proved a solid debut as it established them as an act to watch. Three years later, the Quartet of vocalist Shaun Christensen, guitarist Michael Jurin, bassist Amanda Tannen and drummer Arthur Kremer released "Harmonies for the Haunted" and proved that they were no fluke. Receiving generally positive reviews, their sophomore effort found its way to #12 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart upon its release (Heatseekers a list of albums by artists new to the charts).
The most impressive thing about this album in comparison to its predecessor is its maturity, as the foursome diverge somewhat from their lighthearted approach on their previous album in order to address issues of self-searching, belonging, and love, lost but not forgotten. Christensen's lyrics are contemplative and sincere, and are complimented well by the sonic backdrop, with layered vocals and rhythmic, often echoing guitar. The bass and drum parts are fairly basic but solid, often showcasing interesting arrangements when they come to the forefront of the music.
Many of the songs follow a common theme, where they start of slowly or with thin instrumentation, then build to a climax at the end as layers are added to the music, swelling to a triumphant chorus or outro ("Lost in Time" and especially "The Diver" are prime examples of this paying off). The first half of the album is full of fresh arrangements though, with each of the first five songs distinguishing themselves through instrumentation, pace and energy: "Lost in Time", "Damn This Foolish Heart", "The Diver" and "Sweet Troubled Soul" alternate between melancholy ballads and more energized rockers. This fades somewhat as the album goes on, with the exception of "Love and Longing", an upbeat track whose chorus is carried by Christensen and Tannen's excellent vocal work.
The standout track, however, is clearly "Sweet Troubled Soul", an infectious and brooding piece with especially good guitar and drum work, riding a memorable riff to a soaring ending, sure to be the highlight of any indie mix and a great starting point for someone unfamiliar with the band and its sound. The musicianship is very good throughout the record, and while Christensen's voice may be an acquired taste (though this is more an issue on their first album -- see "Somewhere Across Forever), each song tends to bring a new and interesting twist to the band's sound.
While there is no real 'Achilles' Heel' to "Harmonies...", a handful of the more uninspired songs bring down the overall quality of the recording. "On My Own" is the first song that rehashes the songwriting of the early tracks, and while "Stay Entertained" boasts a catchy chorus, it falls short of the more complete pieces found earlier in the album. I've often found myself excited to listen to "Harmonies..." when it first begins, but skipping tracks towards the second half of the CD.
Still, the overall impression of "Harmonies for the Haunted" is quite positive. The album cover is a good representation of the mood -- mostly somber and bittersweet. Though Stellastarr* would revert to the pop/punk sound of old with their next release, "Harmonies..." remains a well-executed representation of a more deliberate side of the band's music. While not a classic, "Harmonies for the Haunted" is a standout effort by Stellastarr* and definitely worth picking up if you come across it.
Sweet Troubled Soul
Love and Longing