Stars Let Their Strengths Shine on 'From Capelton Hill'
Published May 23, 2022Capelton Hill is located in Quebec's Eastern Townships, where you can visit one of the oldest copper mines in the country. The place is also dear to the heart of Stars' Torquil Campbell, whose grandfather used to build homes there in the late 1800s. It's no wonder then that the band's new album From Capelton Hill taps into themes of nostalgia, loss and hope, resulting in a beautiful, moving record.
Almost 25 years into their career with nine studio albums under their belt, Stars can pretty much do whatever they want. On 2017's There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light, they blended their recent dance-oriented work with the baroque pop of their early days. If that record was the sound of a band that know exactly what they are, From Capelton Hill reveals a band that know where they come from, aware of their legacy and willing to build on it to refine their craft. It's also their most relatable album in years, aiming for a more personal feel rather than cinematic grandeur.
To be clear, there is nothing here that Stars haven't done before. Tracks like "Back to the End" and "Hoping" hark back to the orchestral textures of their beloved classic Set Yourself on Fire, while "Build a Fire" echoes the dance floor aesthetics of 2014's No One Is Lost. But their experience allows them to draw from these trends without getting overburdened by them, which would lead to self-pastiche.
The greatest quality of From Capelton Hill is its restraint. In the past, Stars have had a tendency to overdo it. Of course, their melodramatic inclinations are part of their charm, but here, they rely on their strengths and let the quality of the songwriting do the rest. Opener "Palmistry" is a great example of that: a simple tune propelled by beautiful vocal harmonies with lush, but subtle string arrangements. Follow-up "Pretenders" is just as catchy, with its infectious hook and a chorus that evokes the jangle pop of the Stone Roses.
Even Campbell's characteristic croon has been toned down a bit, resulting in some of his finest vocal work. His performance on acoustic closer "Snowy Owl" is especially moving, with lyrics about love, lost relationships and the passage of time that just feel quintessentially Stars: "Are you free tonight? / Yeah I miss you / One more stupid fight then I can kiss you / You don't sound the same, you sound stronger / We can't stay in this place any longer."
"Capelton Hill" is the true standout number. Propelled by an epic chorus, the song encapsulates the themes of nostalgia and loss at the heart of the record with its pandemic-tinged story of a family trading the city "for clouds in the south" after they had to "close up the house for one more year." It's the closest Stars have come yet to recapturing the magic of their 2004 anthem "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead," thanks in large part to the brilliant duet between Campbell and Amy Millan, who remains a shining presence throughout.
From Capelton Hill also benefits from the rich production of Marcus Paquin and Jace Lasek, two veterans of the Montreal scene. It's a finely textured record, where every instrument gets the space it requires, leaving more room for fingerpicked acoustic guitar or the French horn of Chris Seligman. The only real faux pas is the forgettable "If I Never See London Again," which suffers from an excess of studio effects to replicate '80s production style — from gated reverb to, yes, a sax solo.
Overall, From Capelton Hill is a brilliant reminder that it's totally fine to rely on your strengths and build on them to produce beautiful music without having to constantly reach for new tricks. In terms of storytelling, there are very few bands that compare to Stars, which is why we still need them after all these years. In the end, those stories about growing up and whether we should hold on to the past or let it go aren't just about them, they're also about us. (Last Gang)