[With apologies to author and self-publicist Dave Eggers, whose new column in Spin is written just so, only longer]
I'm not sure why it's so hard to describe modern music in its own terms without likening it to some other band or giving it a name that involves a hyphenate and the words post- or -core, or maybe both, or at the very least something with an umlaut. Perhaps it's because our language lacks a bevy of onomatopoeic adjectives and forces even well-intentioned reviewers down visual alleys. Rock critics launch strident metaphors, such as "peeling melodies" or "forensic bass lines," that never quite reach a destination where they truly conjure an aural sensation.
Writing about music almost inevitably breeds recommended-if-you-like comparisons that gestate into sounds-like comparisons, and before long critics accuse bands of being derivative because they have the gall to perform pop songs using guitars, a bass and a drum set. Example A: stellastarr* is a derivative nü-new-wave band. They sound like the Pixies. And the Talking Heads. And Depeche Mode. And the Cure during inspired moments when Robert Smith is not moping. Example B: stellastarr* lead singer Shawn Christensen's vocals are clearly the result of science secretly figuring out a way for Morrissey and David Byrne to procreate. To the supposition that his band is merely the spawn of other, more creative geniuses, Christensen says, "Well. At least they're not comparing us to just one band."
Indeed. Recent polls show critics comparing stellastarr* to an average of ten other artists, the aforementioned along with Devo, Blondie, Fred Schneider and Interpol, to which I will more accurately add Hot Hot Heat, the Faint and the Darkness minus the tongue so firmly implanted in cheek. The interesting thing is not, of course, that Music Critic X thinks stellastarr* sounds like the Pixies and the Talking Heads, it's that Music Critic X would sooner dance a naked samba in Times Square than say that the Pixies sound like the Talking Heads. So how can a band that is incessantly compared to a bunch of other bands sound like all these other bands if none of these other bands really sound like each other? Maybe a band can concurrently sound like another band, sound like itself and sound good.
I don't remember the first time I heard stellastarr*, because right now the experience is tied up with the last time I heard stellastarr* through headphones as I walked from my apartment in the Delmar Loop to the Hi-Pointe. It was St. Patrick's Day, and I planned on enjoying a few (read: many) pitchers of Old Style, which is surprisingly delicious when poured from a tap into a frosty mug, but I underestimated how long the walk would take. It was a thick, nouveau spring night when the air fails miserably at being pleasant and instead feels like condensed soup, and it was a black night, so black that no one from inside the pastel wash of passing cars noticed that I was in fact not walking. I was not walking because stellastarr* raged through my ears and made left right left impossible; instead an elaborate leffffft leffffft right right right leffffft leffffft dance to the beat of Amanda Tannen's "oh-oh-oh" vocals in the song "Jenny" overtook my gait, and I imagine it looked rather creepy, although no creepier than the guy waiting for a bus just past the intersection of Skinker and Wydown. I'm not entirely sure there's even a bus stop right there.
My first interview with Shawn Christensen, singer, songwriter and guitarist for New York City-based stellastarr*, took place the next morning. We talked about food, his favorite being Kraft macaroni and cheese. We talked about art because Christensen, a Basquiat fan, is an artist, as are his bandmates, all of whom are graduates of New York's prestigious Pratt Institute.
If you are interested in Christensen's art, look no further than the liner notes of stellastarr*'s self-titled RCA debut, where his slightly geometric self-portrait, along with portraits of bassist Tannen, drummer and keyboardist Arthur Kremer and guitarist Michael Jurin face you with ruddy complexions and creamy stares. The cover of the album contains snippets of the portraits in a state of disarray so that Jurin's eyeball leads into Christensen's collarbone; Tanner's head is severed mid-nose; Kremer's similarly severed head takes a chunk out of Jurin's jowl. The layout forces you to turn the artwork around and around again in order to put the parts of their faces together, an effect that makes the seemingly random disorganization slowly clasp together into a kind of pinwheel, a fragmented geometric star.
But this is dance punk, not art. Or is it finally time to admit that the two are not mutually exclusive?
My second interview with Shawn Christensen takes place thanks to circumstances beyond my control, and we find our hero sound-checking in Baltimore on a balmy evening in late March. I'm going to write the definitive piece about your band, I tell Christensen. The lovers and the haters will look to this article as the buoy, the bastion even, of stellastarr* on the printed page, so tell us please, what is it that you never say? A pause follows that there are no words for, then a few questions to clarify what exactly I mean by that, and then --
"My aspiration is to some day disappear. To completely disappear from everything as I know it, to completely escape to where no one will ever find me ever again. It's something that I always think about for some reason, something that will never happen. I've never told anyone that before. It's your one shining thing."
The shining high-gloss art, the distorted images, the addictive sound, the affected spelling with two r's and asterisk -- it's all somehow part of something bigger than the band and yet infinitely smaller than the music, and all seems to circuitously prove that nothing about stellastarr* is linear, yet everything is connected. So I'm back in the pinwheel, back in the sound of the last time I heard stellastarr*. It's later that same night and I'm running home from the Hi-Pointe, God bless those pitchers, running through a late-night early-morning hour, seeping in cacophonous glee that turns the name "Coco" into two then three then eight syllables as I sing along with Christensen. It's a beautiful image in a way, if only because for once, because of this music, it's an audible image: the feet pounding on the uneven sidewalk, the swoosh of the grass padding every misstep, the discordant bell of the laundry quarters chiming in my pocket, the breathless pulse of co-co-co. This is listening to stellastarr*, because stellastarr* is all of this. stellastarr* is the way paint looks close-up when your nose touches the canvas and the way velvet feels when you stroke it against the grain and jumping high and hard on wooden floorboards and extremely dank, dark rooms with insulation hanging from the ceiling and the feeling of the burns on your calves from leg-wrestling on Berber carpet while the babysitter sits on the couch sucking a sour-apple Blow Pop and being squished into the way-back of a station wagon with six other people who smell like puppy and hawking from the balcony of a high-rise apartment, wondering almost tangentially what your loogie hits on the way down.
At home I slip into an online cradle of music criticism and post, "Buy it or download it, I don't care, because if you play it at a party, stars will fall from the sky like sparkling rain and everyone will be happy." When I check again the next morning, I have only one reply. It comes from a 26-year-old neo-Brooklynite who writes a single line in a small, stark font:
"You are right about the stars."