When stellastarr* broke onto the music scene in 2003, they had a number of things going against them in my book:
(1) they were NYC art students who went straight to a major label;
(2) they wore snappy suits that made them look like Interpol;
(3) they wore their influences on their sleeve, right down to a track called "Pulp Song" and
(4) they had that damn "*" in their name.
When combined, these four factors had me quite predisposed to dislike them greatly. Much to my chagrin, their 2003 debut stellastarr* (RCA) was surprising catchy and a fun listen. Ah well, so much for defining bands based on their NME/Spin/Entertainment Weekly pre-hype layout.
Flash-forward two years and stellastarr* have returned to prove that they are more than just a flash in the hipster pan. Harmonies for the Haunted is technically their second major album, but the first where they got to spend oodles of money to record the disc. This might be its Achilles' Heel. Their debut had a raw intensity that made otherwise "by the numbers" tracks stand out. Harmonies seems all too well planned out, robbing stellastarr* of the spark that made their debut so captivating.
Whereas the first album was undoubtedly indebted to Pulp for its influence, it is less obvious here. Instead, odd elements of Duran Duran, the Cure and James seem to creep in, dragging the album down from the start with dirges like the opener "Lost in Time", a song that attempts to capture a "Pictures of You" and Laid-era James swirling production. They try to kick start the album with "Damn this Foolish Heart," but it ends up coming off as what might have happened if you tried to create an indie-rock version Neil Diamond's "Coming to America".
You could give up there, resigning stellastarr* to a sophomore slump, but "The Diver" and "Sweet Troubled Soul" actually achieve the polished mood pieces that have some urgency to them. "Sweet Troubled Soul" in particular channel Duran Duran with more of a rock rather than new wave edge, but still retains the somber, dreary mood that permeates Harmonies. Lead singer Shawn Christensen's vocals in "Sweet Troubled Soul" seemed forced though, almost as if he is attempted to sound more mature by mimicking Morrissey or Ro bert Smith.
It's when stellastarr* doesn't get wrapped up into its own desire to be surrounded by a morose cloud that the album succeeds. "Born in a Fleamarket" and "Love and Longing" recapture the upbeat yet dark feel of "My Coco" and "Jenny" from stellastarr*. Christensen doesn't attempt to be Morrissey as much, instead lets his voice betray its lighter side with excellent results, especially in "Born in a Fleamarket". The album closes with a few rather unremarkable numbers, unless you really like repetitive lyrics ("Stay Entertained").
In all, Harmonies for the Haunted has all the hallmarks of a band who really wants to prove that they have staying power and artistic vision. Sometimes these stabs into expanding the sound work (e.g., Interpol's Antics), sometimes they are just too overblown and overworked for their own good (e.g., Hot Hot Heat's Elevator). stellastarr* fall prey to that classic blunder: exchanging production for catchiness. This is not to say that Harmonies for the Haunted is a bad album, instead it lacks that urgency and rawness that is what set stellastarr*'s debut apart from many of the Interpol-clones.