We’re a long way from the glory days of the American pop songbook, so much so that whenever it’s referenced anew, the sounds carry a heavy slate of associations. Above all, the sounds bear the weight of collective memory; the soundtrack of, as Baudrillard put it, “a Utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved.” One hears a certain postwar optimism in the simple pop forms piled high with ornate arrangements, the sound of the vernacular stretching its artistic legs, enabled by cheap, mass-produced musical equipment and a new marketing device, recently made a permanent fixture in the living rooms of millions: the television.
“I’m Gonna Try,” the first single from Shimmering Stars’ debut album, Violent Hearts, sounds as unambiguously sunny as anything by The Ronettes. The doo-wop rhythms combined cavernously resonant production invite comparisons, in part to the sounds of 50s pop, but mostly to their more recent revival.
But adopting the palette of light mid-20th-century pop songs carries an ipso facto handicap as well — nobody’s going to fault you for lacking high artistic or conceptual ambitions; people (myself, at least) are more concerned with a band’s ability to refashion those raw materials in exciting ways. Violent Hearts manages to tread the line between familiarly catchy and refreshing throughout.
“Walking down the street,” sings frontman Rory McClure on the single, alongside a mid-tempo, vintage Spector beat. So far, so faithfully 60s. On the next line he’s joined by a parallel lower harmony hearkening to the Everly Brothers, but with far more menacing lyrics: “And I wanna kill everyone I see/ Despite my antipathy I am longing to be someone better/ In my heart is a violence I cannot dispel.”
Like the restless ghost of Phil Spector, McClure skewers the optimism represented by the sunny, vaguely familiar melody. And I think that’s the central binary that Shimmering Stars tread, with on one hand the melodic sensibility once heard on American Bandstand-type shows, and on the other the threatening, lo-fi repurposings of a post-Reagan garage-dweller. Yet there are two problems with that narrative. First, many of the classic record-hop pop songs carried darker undertones just beneath the surface — after all, the highways were filled with rebels who’d never ever be any good. Second, Shimmering Stars are from Vancouver.
They name-check their hometown on “East Van Girls,” one of the album’s highlights, but the song itself is quite isolating, catchy and upbeat though it is. McClure catches one of those eponymous girls’ eyes, “at a thrift store on Hastings,” only to see her ride away with her entourage “on your shitty bikes.”
Most of the songs deal with rejection — or, rather, they reject. The last song, “Walk Away,” deals with the struggle of leaving something behind, and the temptation to “pretend it’s like it was before,” a proposition that’s rejected: “Can’t you see that I just want more?” So by the end of Violent Hearts — it doesn’t take long, as the album clocks in at a brisk 25 minutes — there’s no catharsis, no sense of profundity, and nothing’s really been subverted, except perhaps the “illusionist effort to resurrect the American primal scene” (Baudrillard again), which always required its share of good-time musical mirages. Instead, Shimmering Stars’ enjoyable 14 songs stand relatively unburdened by their tradition, a testament to the other side of the feedback loop.