The Stars universe is a pretty wonderful place to be, at least on their latest disc. While their first two albums tipped a little too often towards overblown, the Sad Robots EP seems to do the trick by compressing all that’s invigorating about the Montreal-based group into six open-hearted, lush, electric-pop tracks. The title itself, Sad Robots, succinctly reflects the head versus heart sensibility this time around: coolly mechanized drum beats crash past swelling guitars, while Amy Millan’s sweetly tentative voice meshes well as always with Torquil Campbell’s more assured, enunciated style. It’s all a little raw, with buzzing backbeats and the occasional stutter -- refreshing, as Stars do occasionally lapse into the overwrought, sacrificing emotion to try and create anthems.
The EP launches out unobtrusively, with an atmospheric instrumental, “Maintenance Hall, 4 AM.” Subtle drums and a graceful, almost hypnotic piano line mix with raw synths and a mumbling robot voice, and it lasts just long enough so as not to overstay its welcome. The opener may be lovely, but next up “Undertow” is breathtaking, easily the standout here. Millan’s calm, breathy vocals are contrasted with a reverberated refrain, “When will it stop?” and the liveliness of the instrumentation -- it’s not peppy, for the most part, but there’s a wonderful rhythmic bass solo and a bouncier guitar line to counter what are otherwise bleak lyrics (“The brittle and bitter bone (when will it stop?) / Forgotten how to grow”).
What sets Stars apart from every other buzzed-about indie act for me is the chemistry between Torquil and Millan, which is unfortunately underused. “Going, Going, Gone” is the closest you’ll get to standard-bearer “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead.” Millan is in fine form here, taking over for Metric’s Emily Haines (whose version appears on 2001’s Nightsong), soaring and beautifully flawed as a woman trying to reclaim herself: “Each penny numbs the pain, sends you gently for the fall / I followed you last night…I knew it wasn’t right,” she sings as Campbell’s voice weaves in, backed by shivering synths and hazy, dream-like drums. Campbell’s vocals are a little too theatric here, but even that is forgotten by the time the song reaches its close as Millan repeats “All I see, all I see is me everywhere” alone over slow-burning. This is good stuff -- it hurts and it’s gorgeous and it’s human.
“14 Forever” is more standard Stars fare, as in it’s good but not particularly memorable. It’s the most upbeat you’ll find here, all driving drums and shining harmonies, but the sunnier mood, the glossy nostalgia, seems out of place here. Still, Campbell is excellent at penning those uncannily resonant moments (“I hear it in your voice, you're tired of the summer / And deep inside your mind you hear a song of your heart / You’ll keep me beside you 'cause it's been too long now”) that lift any track out of being simply run-of-the-mill.
Closing things off is another collision between stuttering electronic instrumentation and almost painfully raw lyrics on the disc’s title track. Millan sings entirely in French, the refrain “Il pleut, il pleut / Je pleure, je pleure” backed by light plucking of an acoustic guitar, ripples of synths, and what sounds like sheets of rain pouring down.
My overall impression of this EP is something I’ve never really felt with Stars: it ends too soon. This is a band about to reach full bloom, and hopefully their next offering is as gorgeous and refreshing as Sad Robots (and all this for a relatively paltry four dollars, available on http://sadrobots.ca/.)