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The band Stars

Norman Wong

3 out of 4 stars

The North

Life is hard, and Stars does what it can to help. Some encouragement here; a lesson there. Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan duet sweetly, the two of them working it out, the "it" being any number of things.

And then there's simply the sound of Millan's voice – a high, shining remedy.

But if they hadn't known it all along, they seem to realize now that a song can only go so far. Campbell knows that a song rarely changes the world any longer, even if radio ever did play it. All that's left is a "pretty melody," as he puts it, and lyrics that can be used to convey feelings for those less expressive. When Millan chimes worryingly – "What do I do when I get lonely?" – Campbell answers with the song's advice and titular refrain, Hold on When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It.

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To let go when you give it. Stars does that well, always has. On its sixth album, the Montreal synth-pop band is unabashed emotionally as usual, but with a few tweaks to its crystalline sound and enchanting style. The lead track The Theory of Relativity, for example, glides to a thick beat and an unusually dirty buzz (though it has its swirly moments as well).

Do You Want to Die Together is melodramatic doo-wop (with Campbell making like Roy Orbison and Millan doing her best Millan) until a monstrous, stomping chorus changes everything. Stars, where did that come from? It is as lovely imagining Wonder Woman and Superman covering this tune as it is unsettling to think of Avril Lavigne and Chad Kroeger doing the same.

The meaning behind some of Stars' most stirring and anthemic music of the past was unambiguous. "The night starts here, forget your name, forget your fear," was an excellent insistence of 2007's In Our Bedroom After the War. The same album unmistakably assured us with Today Will Be Better, I Swear!

When it comes to the material on The North, things are less decipherable. A Song is a Weapon jangles deftly, but the jingle is less clear. The bullet in Campbell's gun chamber is music and words – "I can only hope to kill you with a song – but the target is unclear. Moreover, "kill" is one of those reversible verbs, sometimes referring to a positive achievement while other times meaning an action highly felonious.

Last track Walls, another duet, shimmers darkly and dramatically, with a fat pulse that comes and goes. Here, he and she seem to have known each other for quite some time. Millan asks question after question, with Campbell unable to provide answers. The song does not resolve, life goes on, and Stars' work is not yet completed.


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The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss
Whitehorse (Six Shooter)
3.5 stars

Whitehorse is the Canadian couple of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, a harmonic pair whose stylish material is clear but never simple. Their eyes glimmer always, as if on a cool musical heist – there is nerve to Doucet's dry Gretsch twang. No Glamour in the Hammer inches cinematically, with him and her sharing a "bullet-proof kiss." I don't know what that is, a bullet-proof kiss, but I'm damn sure they know. (Jack White probably knows, too.) Rhythmic ideas abound, as these guys never stay in one place too long. Their assurance is sexy; the songcraft, nimble. Whitehorse is the Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway of Canadian roots rock, except they are to be taken alive. Brad Wheeler

Whitehorse plays the Ottawa Folk Festival, Sept. 8 and 9.

Cat Power (Matador/Beggars)
3 stars

Chan Marshall doesn't have anything to prove. The demons that once made her seem like dry brush in search of a spark seem under control for now, and on her wholly self-made ninth album, SUN, Marshall confidently plants her flag in new sonic territory. That means synths, drum machines and even Auto-Tune (3, 6, 9 seems to feature it). When the songs are spacious enough (Manhattan, Nothin But Time), Marshall's mysterious presence expands to fill them; when they're sloganeering ("99 percent, y'all!") or sonically cluttered, they feel messy and unfinished. But when she sings, "I'm a lover but I'm in it to win," it's hard not to root for Team Cat Power. Dave Morris

Cat Power plays Metropolis in Montreal Oct. 19, the Kool Haus in Toronto Oct. 20, and the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver Nov. 2.

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Centipede Hz
Animal Collective (Domino)
3 stars

With their bright melodies and goofy vibe, Animal Collective either make you want to roll your windows down and crank the stereo or punch yourself in the face. But even haters concede that their 2009 disc Merriweather Post Pavillion (recorded without Deakin, the guitarist) was remarkably focused and accessible. Centipede Hz is wilder and woollier, and Today's Supernatural epitomizes the change; compared to Merriweather's more streamlined singles, the organs bob and weave around an irregular, quasi-tribal beat while the singer bleats "I made a shadow with my hand, I made it like your heart." The circular tunes and chattering hand drums make for a messier but still lovable swirl of dance-party fodder, but as always with AnCo, your mileage will vary depending on your tolerance for whimsy. D.M.

Animal Collective plays the Malkin Bowl in Vancouver Sept 19.

Martin Solveig (Big Beat/Atlantic)
3.5 stars

Many stars in electronic dance music build their sound off technology, inextricably linking their hooks to the whomp and wobble of synth settings. Martin Solveig sees EDM as rock 'n' roll by other means and uses electronics to achieve results for which musicians a generation earlier would have relied on guitars and drums. So Big in Japan would rock as hard if you swapped in guitars, while even with Martina Sorbara's signature vocal sound, Hello, has a new-wave edge that's more Blondie than Dragonettte. Of course, remixes completely invert that dynamic, so the deluxe edition adds versions with a club twist for those who prefer their rock dusted. J.D. Considine

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