It's a big live-music trend of late: veteran artists playing a classic album straight through in its entirety. Springsteen, Sonic Youth, Steely Dan, the Pixies, Slayer, and the Wu-Tang Clan's GZA are just a few of the many who've gotten in on the act. What's less common, however, is a band hitting the road to give the start-to-finish treatment to an album barely anyone has heard yet. But that's the plan with long-running Canadian indie-pop outfit Stars' fifth LP, The Five Ghosts, which isn't released until June 22 and otherwise has been kept tightly under wraps.
Is this sort of sneak-preview tour something Stars considered before? "I don't know if we necessarily even wanted to do it now!" laughs singer and guitarist Amy Millan, who fronts the quintet with vocalist Torquil Campbell, over the phone from her Montreal home on the eve of the tour. "It came up initially and it seemed like a really good idea before we actually started to attempt it, and then it suddenly became a very scary thought. Even songs that didn't feel like they were working live, we had to make them work. There are songs from older records we've never played live because they didn't work, or maybe we didn't feel attached to them, really, so this concept has been a challenge. And when you're a band for 10 years, you've got to challenge yourself like this."
According to some early accounts, Stars has met that challenge. No surprise there, as these songs are among the best and most immediate that the band — also including bassist Evan Cranley, keyboardist Chris Seligman, and drummer Pat McGee — has ever crafted. Even with an extra reliance on new-wavey synths and drum programming, most of the hallmarks remain: the magnetic interplay between Campbell's Morrissey-inspired melodrama and Millan's sweet, coquettish coo; the elegant guitar-fueled melodies and chamber-pop flourishes; the lyrics about ex-lovers and self-recrimination. Sometimes buoyant, sometimes dark, songs like "Wasted Daylight," "We Don't Want Your Body," and "The Passenger" nod to the likes of Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, and Blondie. And while The Five Ghosts is more of a quick hit than a slow burn, there's enough nuance and complexity to keep things interesting well after its hooks have gotten into you.
"We're obsessed with the pop hook, whether it be a vocal line or a keyboard line or a guitar riff," Millan says. "It's all about the hook. But it's never in a way that's irritating, hopefully. I think we're drawn to the friction where if something sounds beautiful, we put something underneath or on top that's a bit more ugly. There's a lot of poison with the sugar."
After presenting The Five Ghosts, the band fleshes out sets with a batch of songs that fans in each market voted online in advance to hear, usually including such hits as "Ageless Beauty," "The Night Starts Here," and "One More Night."
"I was actually surprised that people didn't choose more rarities," Millan muses. "I thought there'd be a flood of songs we'd never played live, but there's people who are very attached to certain songs we've written and they really don't want to come to a Stars show without hearing them. Plus there's such a release that comes in the second half where they finally get to sing along to all of their favorite songs. It's a payoff for them being patient and sitting through brand-new songs they've never heard before."