Stellastarr* is finding its way

March 30, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

The picture is enigmatic, strikingly so.

The background is black, which makes the alabaster skin of the woman's bony shoulders seem even starker. Her wine-red lips are parted, but that's all you can see of her face. A floating white veil obscures the rest. The shot appears on the cover of Harmonies For the Haunted, the latest album from the New Wave-influenced New York band stellastarr*.

"We came up with the idea of having her be a face you can barely see," says lead singer-guitarist Shawn Christensen, who's calling from a tour stop in Vermont. "The cover is actually a Polaroid. I think we wanted to make a darker record, and the picture kinda goes with that."

Another thing the cover reflects is the deliberate stylishness of the music inside. This time around, stellastarr*, which plays Sonar Lounge on Sunday night, embellished (or inflated, some may say) its quirky blend of early-'90s college rock and moody Cure-like pop. On the moodily romantic new album, the quartet's second for RCA, stellastarr* worked with engineer-producer David Schiffman, whose past clients include System of a Down, Thrice and Jimmy Eat World.

The overall sound on Harmonies is heavier, much denser than the production on the band's well-received, self-titled debut from 2003. That record was overseen by Tim O'Heir, whose approach wasn't as calculated as Schiffman's. But for stellastarr*'s sophomore release, Christensen says the band (Arthur Kremer on drums, Amanda Tannen on bass and Michael Jurin on guitar) wanted to craft a more dynamic sound.

"We wanted to take that route because we felt we could," the singer says firmly. "We like songs with a little more atmosphere. There wasn't any expectation for a certain record from us."

When stellastarr* blew onto New York's rock scene a few years ago, they generated some buzz finely mixing elements of important Northeastern bands, namely Talking Heads and the Pixies. The quartet sometimes invigorated the blend with a fun, tremorous energy, best exemplified on "My Coco," a hit from the band's debut. On the slower material, stellastarr* often went for a downcast feel that recalled Joy Division and the Cure. But those songs, delivered by Christensen in his cheeky style, tended to meander a bit. The fusion of the young band's obvious influences - Pink Floyd and Interpol among them - was tentative.

On Harmonies, stellastarr* is still trying to gel a sound that sets it apart. Only this time, the group seems to favor style over substance. Which doesn't make the album a total bust. Far from it. The music was better recorded, and nice textures embolden the highlights: the driving "Sweet Troubled Soul" and "Damn This Foolish Heart." It's just that, beyond the polished density of the production, nothing leaves much of a lasting impression.

Neither a masterstroke nor a disappointment, the new album deftly shows stellastarr* trying to find its way. "The combination of the two albums works well for the live show where you have the fast songs from the first album and the darker ones from Harmonies For the Haunted," Christensen says. "I don't know if I call it progression. You have to write music you want to hear, and that's what we do."

Check out stellastarr* with the Editors at Sonar Lounge, 407 E. Saratoga St., at 8 Sunday night. Tickets are $15 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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