Blasts from the Present
Stellastar*, The Giraffes
1. "i’ve been living without you"
If you hang on to something long enough, it’ll be new again. Fashion inevitably returns to a former state, adapts it some, adds in some new components, and is big again. As we’ve seen over the last few years, music is no different— at least the music getting all the press and front covers. Logically, we’ve just moved through the seventies and it’s time we began the eighties. Enter Stellastarr*.
When I caught their act at Don Hill’s, their early- to mid-eighties influence was clear. There are elements of the Smiths, Mission U.K., Blondie, Modern English, some Cure, some New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, and even A-ha present in their songs. But while their music is obviously new wave-y, it contains some nicely done modern additions; it sounds familiar, but feels original. That keyboard sound we’re all familiar with from the English invasion of the eighties is there, and so are some more contemporary guitar chords. Vocalist/guitarist Shawn Christensen is an energetic, emotive singer, with a quick delivery and a voice that combines the cadences of David Byrne and Devo with British new-wave falsettos.
While only a demo, the one Stellastar* CD I have sounds well produced. It lacks the absorbing sound of the live show, but it’s still a good representation of what the group can do. "Somewhere Across Forever" is the kind of catchy tune you’d expect to hear in Some Kind of Wonderful. "Homeland" opens sounding like the Cure, then shifts into an A-ha-style ghostly-melodic tune and back again. Go-Go’s and Blondie influences figure into "No Weather," a quick-paced guitar-driven song with those wonderful backing "ba-ba-ba" vocals. "My Coco," with its thundering drums, could pass for Big Country.
There is passion in Stellastarr*’s music. It transports you back to a time when music was changing very rapidly and you knew something was happening (either good or bad, depending on your viewpoint). The question we all have to ask ourselves about the new retro-drive in music is: Where do you draw the line? Where does a band do something original and where are they simply a parody, a cover band, or plainly stealing?
After the passage of so much time since the seventies or early eighties, this retro-music sounds new again, and we’re reminded of the feeling we had first listening to it. Stellastarr* is not a carbon-copy, but they do borrow liberally from bands of the past. Are they reviving a music genre? Yes. Are they contributing something new to it? Maybe. Part of me would rather hear the original bands. Part of me is glad to have the music around again, performed by musicians who obviously love it and put on a great show.
2. "we will never make it out alive"
I stopped in at Luxx on a Wednesday night in mid-October because the owner, Mishka, told me to see this band called the Giraffes. I am so happy he did.
Opening with a George Thorogood country-blues jam, they immediately took over the club. They continued on, song after song, with pulsing eighties glam-rock, club-like swing-a-billy, and twisted hard rock fused into a juggernaut of sound. More than anything, they played balls-on rock like the Cult. And helping that impression out was the lead singer, Aaron, who is quite possibly a reincarnation of Ian Westbury— a loud, commanding, deep, masculine voice with a presence. He is not asking you to listen, he is telling you.
The Giraffes were electricity on the stage, handled with professionalism and rock-star arrogance. It was a beautiful thing to witness. The songs were tight, the band was tight, the guitar was played with Metallica/Guns N’ Roses verve, and the music pounded your head like brilliant thunder. Each song was so powerful and absorbing that when the music ended, it took me a few seconds to register that it was over, that the spell was broken. These guys are not playing music— they are performing an invocation. My notes peter off about midway through their set because I was so absorbed in their music. I finally managed to write "Wow" at the end.
Their CD, Helping You Help Yourself, is a tour-de-force of rock. "It’s You I Pity" is a punk-influenced tirade with a blistering chorus. "Manchester United" is an infectious, rolling, bass-heavy Cult study that explodes wonderfully. "Million Dollar Man" is blues-house rock with early Van-Halen splintering guitars and machine-gun drums, with sex stuck in the middle. "Looting in the A.M." is a funky number with a Rage feel. "I’ll Be Your Daddy" is exactly what you would expect it to be— a nasty, dirty, testosterone-driven fest. "After The Orgy" is a moody, sparse, end-of-the-night/looking-at-the-dawn ditty with ghostly vocals. This is a rock and roll band. A great rock and roll band.
Of course, the CD cannot do justice to having the Giraffes scream in your face at a club, but it is a good introduction. And that’s fine with them. As their guitarist, Damien, told me after the Luxx gig, "A show should never sound like a CD." Good for them. Great for you if you catch them live.
Stellastarr*’s first official EP, Somewhere Across Forever, was released in November on Tiswas Records. Look out for future Brooklyn/ Manhattan shows at www.stellastarr.com.
The Giraffes will continue touring through the winter and spring. They are working on a compilation CD of Brooklyn bands that "should be heard, but aren’t getting the love." They will release a new CD of their own next year sometime. For more information or show dates, email email@example.com.
Grant Moser is an art writer and frequent contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.