As I continue my coincidental tour of Boston indie pop bands (a few weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised by the city’s Mittens), I now find the Sterns on my plate. The bouncy, jangly pop immediately made me think of the New Pornographers, and had me regretting that I shoved this to the bottom of my review pile for such a shallow reason -- I wasn’t fond of the artwork or the band’s picture on the back. This is the band’s sophomore release, and their self-released debut managed to crack CMJ’s Top 200 charts in `05. Let’s see what the hubbub is about.
The vocals were the biggie that equated them with the Pornographers. Lead singer Chris Stern’s voice sounds quite a bit like A.C. Newman, and a female guest vocalist in the opening title track adds to the comparisons to that pop supergroup. Actually, the band’s music tends to be lighter than the newer Pornographers’ stuff, closer to say, Belle & Sebastian, and while the band plays up their Brit-pop obsession in their press stuff, I’ve so far linked them to a Canadian and Scottish group. And how 'bout Pacific-Northwest-by-way-of-Albuquerque, 'cause the great bouncy “Supreme Girl” sure sounds right up the Shins' alley.
Okay, I can hear a bit of the Smiths in the guitar sound, but the Sterns’ overall feel is way more light-hearted than those mopes. I’d lean more towards the Stone Roses, like in the toe-tapping and addictively catchy “All Saints.” A bit more punch alongside catchy organ and handclaps make “Papa, You’re in Your Prime” a top track, and I especially like the guitar harmonies that break down then build to end the track.
Surprisingly, the band is not as light-hearted as I had thought. They take up an occasional political slant, which seems at odds with the care-free feel of the tunes. Both in the lyrics of the title track and the visuals of their video for “Buffer Zone” they touch on abortion views: "I hate to break it to you honey, I’m pro-choice" is thrown into the first, while images of a girl passing protesters to enter an abortion clinic appear in the later. I also think the singer’s little attitude and cute looks in the video are a bit off-putting, but that’s beside the point. I’ve found other political and risqué tidbits throughout the lyric sheet that are pretty well-hidden in a casual listen through the album.
Again it’s a sunny day and I find myself draw to a sunny (at least in sound if not lyrical) group. It’s hard for me to resist a good hook, but I do find that the band is a bit of a one-trick pony. They don’t slow things down at all except the little Death Cab-ish intro in the closer “Virginia Radio.” Also, this does feel a bit derivative, hence all the bands they can be compared to. But hey, it's pop we’re talking about here -- they’re not reinventing the wheel -- and I can’t help but enjoy this.