Review Summary: Exceedingly well produced to a glossy sheen, it is, for all its charm and hooks, a merely adequate record from a band that once showed serious promise.
New York was definitely the place to be in the early-mid part of the ‘00s, as Brooklyn foursome stellastarr* could tell you. Thrown alongside fellow islanders the Rapture and Interpol, among numerous others, into a collective “new wave/post-punk revival,” stellastarr* fell prey to the rapid over-saturation of the scene, unable to replicate the success of their first (and best) album. Sophomore effort Harmonies for the Haunted was the death-knell of their short major-label experience, and after four years haunting East Side bars and rehabilitating vocalist Shawn Christensen’s versatile pipes, they’re back for more on their own label.
Back for more of the same, that is. Whereas “change-or-die” became a wise maxim to adapt by bands (often unfairly) tagged with the “post-punk” label, stellastarr* have rarely switched things up. If anything, Civilized is their most potent distillation of their sparkling, up-tempo bubbly new wave, a radio-ready dart aimed at the commercial jugular. stellastarr* know how to do epic pop: “My Coco” from their debut is easily one of the songs of the decade, pulling all their strengths (note-perfect vocal harmonies, excellent rhythm work, a spiraling guitar solo) together into a monumental sing-a-long effort. Three albums in, however, they’re still having trouble duplicating that perfect storm.
A major breaking point with first-time stellastarr* listeners has always been vocalist Shawn Christensen’s rather unorthodox style, where he is just as likely to hum along in a baritone as he is to jump out to a ringing falsetto. Throat damage, however, has caused him to limit his range to the higher registers, and thus Civilized is spared many of the abrupt yelps that characterized earlier albums and generally makes him more tolerable. On a song like “Warchild,” his slightly more restrained style flows along with the music rather than clashing; on something like “Numbers,” however, his frenetic vocals nearly make a parody of themselves.
Luckily for Christensen, he has the bassist Amanda Tannen and the rest of the band to fall back on. Although an excellent backup vocalist, Tannen is tragically underused here – cuts like first single “Graffiti Eyes” break the boundary from merely good to irrepressibly catchy on the back of her silvery “woah-woahs” and “ba-ba-baas.” Guitar rave-up “Prom Zombie” is even better, a chugging piece of Cars-esque retro-pop featuring Tannen and Christensen feeding off each other’s energy in a revelatory duet. It’s the silly high point of a frothy pop record.
More energetic than their previous efforts, Civilized kicks things into high gear from the get-go and wipes anything slow off the table. Songs like “Freak Out” and “People” is the kind of by-the-numbers new wave rock stellastarr* could do in their sleep, so it’s a delight to hear the band switch things up. Out-of-place opener “Robot” does exactly that, mixing ethereal vocals with a burning, distorted guitar line and an incisive beat, while the exuberant, fuzzed-out dream-pop of “Move On” takes the opposite tack to dazzling effect.
For all their admirable efforts, there is nothing here as immediately fetching as “My Coco,” and Civilized as a whole comes off as just what it was no doubt intended to be – a pop record of little import, one that is perfect for cruising down a summer highway but nothing particularly earth-shattering. Exceedingly well produced to a glossy sheen, it is, for all its charm and hooks, a merely adequate record from a band that once showed serious promise. Then again, who cares when you’re having as much fun as these four clearly are?