The Arts & Crafts universe, much like the actual universe, is ever expanding. Its growth can be charted by not only bands added to the roster, but also in the mere number of players attached, Kevin Bacon-like, to Broken Social Scene. Other similarities to the universe include the fact that there is a Young Galaxy involved, as is, of course, Stars. As opposed to Carl Sagan’s `billions and billions,’ there are actually only six members of the Arts & Crafts version, but thanks to the supportive family atmosphere at the label, there’s now a lot more than that. The latest album on Arts & Crafts asks the question that surely everyone on that label knows the answer to, Do You Trust Your Friends? For Stars, the Toronto born, Montreal based sextet, that answer is a resounding yes. You see, they released a pretty darn good little record called Set Yourself On Fire. This album garnered some critical attention and a tour with Death Cab for Cutie. Now, two years gone since the release of that album, the members of Stars have put the songs of this album up for further review by their labelmates. The trust was well founded.
Set Yourself On Fire is one of those albums that I find myself returning to every so often, mostly to listen to one of four or five different tracks. This has rarely happened with me since late 2003 when I started writing record reviews. But the voices, interplay and pop constructions of Torquil Campbell, Amy Millan, Evan Cranley, Chris Seligman and the other two (not to treat them like The Professor and Mary Ann, but there you go) draw me back again and again. So, I was more than a little hesitant about hearing some of these songs tinkered with. I had questions. For one, were these remixes or were they covers? Was this album covering Stars’ entire career? Is this really what was meant in reports about Stars’ next album? Well, in order, it is both remixes and covers of the entire album, Set Yourself on Fire, and no, this is not Stars’ next album, that would be In Our Bedroom After the War, due to be released in September of this year.
The first true test, as always, came from the first track, this one a personal favorite of mine, “Your Ex-Lover is Dead.” Owen Pallett, he who calls himself Final Fantasy, also known as the string arranger for Arcade Fire, took the reins and came through with flying colors. Pallett strips the song down to its essence, with weeping piano and string accompaniment. I’m not saying it’s better than the original, but it does transform it emotionally and aesthetically enough to almost be considered a different track altogether. Just listen to the Cinema Paradiso-like string arrangement at the bridge as opposed to slightly poppier original and it’s like Ray Kinsella asking his dad for a game of catch. Plus, there’s the chorus of voices successively repeating the opening words, “when there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire,” ending with a toddler shouting “nothing lef’oo burn! Set y’self on fi-yah!” Too cute.
The next test was with “Ageless Beauty,” one of Amy Millan’s finest moments and a pop song for the, well, the ages. In charge of this one was the Most Serene Republic, the first band signed to Arts & Crafts not associated with Broken Social Scene. I couldn’t have been happier with the result. The track starts with the sound of an old-timey guitar, complete with vinyl crackles and pops in the background. The song then continues, with Amy’s original vocals, as a gypsy caravan Django Reinhardt kind of tune, bouncy and slightly ballroom bluesy. Again, I don’t know which one I prefer at this point. It’s like asking me whether I prefer Jimi Hendrix’s or Bob Dylan’s version of “All Along the Watchtower.”
The last test was with “What I’m Trying to Say,” one of the best modern love songs ever written, in my opinion. The Dears do something incredibly interesting with the track. They split it up into two distinct parts, and then rename them as parts one and two. Essentially, part one echoes the vocals, adds rapid-fire drums and ethereal keyboards, bringing Torquil’s vocals just up to the point where he admits his love. Part two then picks up where that leaves off, being the denouement, the admission of love, all tucked away by itself, repeated over and over. I would have never thought to do that. It’s absolutely brilliant. These three tests all revolved around my favorite tracks, songs in which the interpreters involved knew the power of the originals and not so much remixed, but laid their own instrumentation to existing vocals. Jason Collett and Apostle of Hustle, as two examples, did covers rather than remixes, and both succeed in making these songs their own, Collett in his indie country folk way and Andrew Whiteman with a touch of Latin flavor. Junior Boys, Metric and Young Galaxy are other notable feature players, making this album the best assemblage of Canadian talent since BSS’s last album.
I wish every label were like Arts & Crafts. It seems that they are successful and make money not because of their decisions but despite them. You see, they’re supportive of every artist on the roster whether they sell records or not. Arts & Crafts is a family more so than a business venture. Each artist who appears on Do You Trust Your Friends? takes that question quite seriously, handling their particular song assignment with care and love. And for a bunch of songs about love and sex, it seems only fitting, besides being polyamorously kinky. That’s Canada for you!
Bloc Party- Silent Alarm Remixed
The Postal Service- Such Great Heights / The District Sleeps Alone Tonight
Stars- Set Yourself On Fire