After 2004's magnificent Set Yourself on Fire, it seemed that Stars were ready for (no pun intended) stardom. They followed it with two missteps: an awful remix of that album, and In Our Bedroom After the War with its weaker songs and overblown production. It seems that those disappointments and the passage of six years largely removed such expectations from the Canadian quintet.
Now they rebound by reuniting with Set Yourself on Fire producer Tom McFall and thinking smaller. Though there are still string arrangements ornamenting a few tracks, this is a more intimate album. Songs are fewer and shorter, and there are not as many collaborators filling out the sound. There are also not nearly as many rousing anthems, though "Fixed" certainly gets the blood flowing and "We Don't Want Your Body" in a way belies its title with its witty agglomeration of club riffs.
But the most important part of Stars' sound, the complementary male/female vocals of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan, is immediately to the fore on the beautiful opener "Dead Hearts." And the album's stripped-down sound is more revealing of the electro-rock foundation of the band's earlier work (even the strings get fuzzed-up electronically at times). As a result, Postal Service comparisons have been immediate, but a) since when has that been a bad thing?; b) those comparisons are unfair to a group that was working in that sound before the Postal Service's brief existence. And on an album loosely tied together by a thread of ghosts, it's apt that the ghost of their old sound reappears.
Anyway, when married to soaring melodies, as so often on The Five Ghosts, it's one of the most infectious sounds in recent indie-rock history. If the songwriting had stayed strong start to finish, instead of flagging near the end, The Five Ghosts could have ranked with their best; as it is, it's still a most enjoyable listen with some great highlights. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.