There’s something about “Blue Skied an’ Clear,” perhaps the best tune Black Hearted Brother’s Neil Halstead has been a part of, that never loses its pull. Not even the merciless rotten vibes of The Doom Generation, which featured the track, could take away from its delicately transportive force. It’s strange how the song eclipses even the best songs from Souvlaki and Just For A Day. As the structural little brother of Talk Talk’s “I Believe In You,” it’s not quite groundbreaking, but it taps into and expands on the song’s stretching sinew of heartache, when you feel so much longing you just want to silently vanish. There’s a patience and grace to both songs that’s hard to find elsewhere. I only wish I could say the same for any of the offerings from Halstead’s new project.
Joined by Seefeel’s Mark Van Hoen, Black Hearted Brother is very much your garden variety gauze. It’s not hard to like if you’re partial to sustain-drenched melancholia, but it’s really a step too far backward. At best, it’s as though Pygmalion never happened and Slowdive continued on their sad, sugary way without a care in the whirled. The main difference being that the first two records were relatively keyboard free. If keyboards were present, they were mostly just for texture. Here, they play a pretty prominent role, but there’s something flat and garage-y about their application, where the more guitar-driven numbers approach that “Allison”-level overwhelm. The thrust of these songs — namely “(I Don’t Mean To) Wonder” and, to a lesser extent, “UFO” and “Time in The Machine” — is very tried and true, which would be fine if we weren’t talking about the second most renowned songwriter in this wistful daydreamer-touted genre.
Taken on its own terms, there’s a lot on here that approaches turgid, moody rock tedium. Something like “Take Heart” wouldn’t be out of place in a maudlin montage on some stultifying prime time TV show. There’s an underlying drabness to the less adorned melodies that threatens to render the more satisfyingly cacophonous moments somewhat impotent. And while the disco thump and arpeggiated keys of “Got Your Love” may give Anthony Gonzalez a run for his money (mostly due to better vocals), there’s a point where its lack of economy drags things down. It’s a little bittersweet to witness the architects of a subgenre become eclipsed by their acolytes. But what Shields and Halstead may lack in present-day vitality is perhaps made up for by an honest affinity for obscured, spectral pop. They’re doing what they love, and if their legacy brings folks to the table, that’s a beautiful thing.
Stars Are Our Home is a passable enough album. It’s just a bit naggingly stale, even for a fan of this sort of thing. If they were really recording this to get their spacerock ya-yas out, one wishes they’d have made something a little more compact and to the point. As it stands, it’s frequently a little too reminiscent of Kinski or Mogwai at their most dry and soundtracky. Consequently, the record hovers numbly between experimentation and genre refinement, leading the listener to treat it as moist-eyed indie wallpaper and little more.