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Matthew Foster , December 11th, 2012 06:11

The Montreal indie-pop stalwarts delivered a firey and re-energised performance at London's Garage, writes Matthew Foster

Endless music by standing order and fibre optic cable may have brought David Bowie's vision of art on tap a good deal closer, but you'd probably struggle to set up a direct debit for the sweat running down Torquill Campbell's wild-eyed face tonight. Could you really capture with 7 megapixels the strobe-light dance-off during 'We Don't Want Your Body', each of the singer's spat syllables propelling him closer to the grasp of the worshipping kids in the front row? And, could any smart-arse wording and stock clichés deployed in an online review ever really convey the sheer truth and beauty of a drummer who is wearing some kind of onesie? Some things are worth seeing in the flesh, and Stars spend a lot of time tonight trying to remind us of just that.

The swoony Montreal indie-pop stalwarts are in London for the first time since 2010, when they were touring the mixed-bag of The Five Ghosts, a maddeningly-produced album that offered just the tiniest hint that Stars might be treading water creatively or were, at the very least, in need of a good break. Happily, new LP 'The North is a killer, and puts a bullet in the head of any decline narrative I'd been thinking of using for this piece. The audience are loyal enough to give most of the new cuts a hushed reverence rather than the customary bathroom break, a good thing too when the set leans heavily on them.

Exhilarating opener 'The Theory of Relativity' is a lock-step, neon-clad piece of eighties confectionery that shows off the trademark vocal interplay between Amy Millan and the more louche Campbell. 'A Song Is A Weapon' sees Campbell cut loose with a tambourine, step well away from the mic and shout so loudly about killing you with a song that you can still hear him without electric assistance. 'The North', at first hushed and restrained, soon offers up that Stars melodica freakout you've always wanted but been been too scared to ask for, and the inherently cheesy duet-cum-bombastic-ballad 'Do You Want To Die Together?', a bit daft on record, ends up sitting perfectly in a set high on heartfelt theatrics. They even lead into it with a 'All I Have To Do Is Die', an Everly Brothers send-up that demonstrates that, as well as taking this art thing very seriously, Stars do a good line in camp, self-effacing humour.

As if to hammer the point home, 'Hold On When You Get Love' gets this introduction: "There are two kinds of people in England," Campbell says. "People who would write a song like this, and people who will beat you up for writing a song like this". As Millan's Kylie-esque back-up kicks in, a minute into what is patently The Best Song They've Written, I'm still dwelling on that sentence and can't stop seeing a steel toe capped boot on a moisturised face. I will visit the doctor. Later, we're informed Stars have been to Buckingham Palace to visit the Queen. "Unsurprisingly she had nothing to offer me," Campbell quips.

The Smiths, of course, also had a similar knack for mixing humour, prettiness, violence and morbidity, and the Ghost of Morrissey Past hovers somewhere in the Garage tonight. We get a snippet-intro of 'Reel Around The Fountain' and, later, when Campbell pleads with us not to forget his band, he says "remember 'Rubber Ring'". Yet for all their proudly-worn influences, Stars have come a long way from mere Broken Social Scene affiliates covering 'This Charming Man' brilliantly/appallingly (delete according to puritanism), and have quietly amassed a formidable library of their own. A faultless 'Ageless Beauty', 'Your Ex-Lover Is Dead' and 'Take Me To The Riot' are welcomed tonight like returning heroes, while The Five Ghosts tracks gain a dynamism they lacked on record, the euphoric 'Fixed' in particular.

What makes the night a pretty special one, though, is a little harder to put into words. It's the constant look of amazement on the band's faces, as though they don't quite expect the responses they keep getting from a rabid crowd. The Garage sold out fast, yet the new record's hard to find in stores, suggesting a mismatch between what the industry thinks of Stars and what their fans do. Yet if there's any bitterness, they don't play like they're going through the motions; they just seem to work harder. As the set wraps up, Campbell thanks the crowd for a combination of their "respect", their "love", their "ears", and "a little bit of your cash". Under low light for the last track, the sparse new 'The 400', there's an adorable band huddle on stage, not much beyond piano and voice, and a beautifully sung bit of low-key, straight-up sincerity that feels like it was worth turning up for alone, but which will not come across quite right when written on the page. I guess you had to be there.

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