I discovered Stars a couple years back on their lovely debut entitled Nightsongs and found that their slightly overly-sweet pop music somehow sat well with me. For some reason the group seemed to pull off phrasing and instrumentation that would normally make me want to change the station, and their second album Heart won me over as well. Despite that, it took me awhile to get around to hearing Set Yourself On Fire, and like many third albums from groups, it at the same time contains some of their best work, as well as some of their most indulgent.
In fact, the album opens with a four-spot of tracks that are quite possibly the best things that the group have ever done and come at you like a bang-bang-bang-bang pop of nearly peerless pop perfection. "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead" builds slowly as singer Torquil Campbell and Amy Milan trade off vocal duties while layered strings, horns, and a chugging rhythm section tighten and pull everything together. The following album-titled "Set Yourself On Fire" opens with percolating synths and some wanky guitars before locking into one of the best synth-pop tracks that I've heard in some time as Campbell and Milan again add vocal harmonies that just melt.
"Ageless Beauty" and "Reunion" both keep the great pace as the former might be one of the most radio-driven songs the group has ever done (replete with soaring, uplifting guitars) while the latter lightens things up with even more hooky guitar melodies. In a perfect world, either track would zip right up the charts and provide some nice spring singalongs for the masses. Even though the slower pace is welcome, it's on the more laid-back tracks where the album stumbles a bit. "The Big Fight" is charming enough with a rhodes piano/guitar smooth groove, but seems to go on far too long at well over five minutes while "One More Night" suffers from several of the same problems.
In actuality, the biggest problem with Set Yourself On Fire is more related to the overall running length of the release. In the past, the group got in and out in shorter times while the newest effort from the group runs well over 50 minutes. Given the overall feel of the songs on the release, tracks like "The First Five Times" (which is good, but not outstanding), could have been relegated to b-side status and made the full-length flow much better. Those are pretty small complaints, though, and when a group writes not only catchy but smart pop songs (if sweet-singing Milan cooing a politically-charged track isn't at least partially subversive, I don't know what is), I've got to give them some serious credit. Stars are easily one of the best groups at what they do.