The North

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Over the course of a decade-plus of releasing albums, Stars have become the kind of band that is easy to forget. Not because they make forgettable music, far from it. They've maintained such a high level of quality for so long that they've become a reliable source of intelligent pop music with a giant, beating heart that has maybe, in a way, become too reliable for people who need to hear a new thing all the time. For anyone who just wants music they can count on to move them as they sing along, The North fits the bill just fine. Built as usual on the twin vocals of Torquil Campbell and Amy Milan and framed by a consistently interesting and well-constructed sound, the album does nothing to challenge their status as Canada's answer to Prefab Sprout or the Go-Betweens. Those two bands knew how to wring emotion out of smart chord changes and simple melodies, Stars are just as adept. The North offers no great changes from the last few records, veering between low-key electro pop, dramatic synth pop heartbreak beats, and sophisticated adult pop. After the slightly (relatively) unfocused The Five Ghosts though, this outing sounds very tightly constructed and somewhat more immediate. The songs have soaring choruses that strike immediately, Milan and Campbell turn in some of their finest vocal performances, and a couple songs rank among their best yet. To name two, the Milan-sung "Backlines" has a cutely bouncing '70s-rock feel, "Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It" is a synth pop stunner with verses that would make New Order sweat and a chorus as majestic as anything U2 ever attempted (but ten times as effective). The album ends with an incredibly powerful one-two knockout punch that proves once again how affecting Stars can be. "The 400" is an emotion-wracked ballad that sounds like Campbell sang it while flat on his back, one second from tears, "Walls" is a stop-start duet between the vocalists with harps, celestial choirs, dubstep synths, and an almost palpable sense of loss and sadness that comes through in the words and their delivery. It's the kind of ending that stops the listener in their tracks, unable to jump right to the next record but taking a moment to recover instead. The North may (or may not) be Stars' best album, it's hard to tell. What is easy to figure out is that they are still operating at top capacity and anyone looking for smart, emotional pop that sounds almost perfect can turn to Stars for all their needs. Just as they've always done.

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