Debuting with the four-track EP Rememberese — three original songs plus a remix — this Montreal-based quartet was overshadowed by such acts as Interpol, the Killers and the Bravery, all of whom had raised their heads to look back over their shoulders at the cooler styles of the ’80s around the same time. “Still in Love Song” and “Killer Bees” are energetic, melodic takes on the Bunnymen/Chameleons sound, with ringing electric guitars (mostly from Greg Paquet) and plaintive vocals from singer/guitarist Tim Fletcher. The acoustic-guitar-based “Talk to Me” is just as tuneful but sounds a bit under-nourished by comparison. Rememberese is slightly amateurish, but still a good debut for the Stills.
On the full-length Logic Will Break Your Heart, songs such as “Changes Are No Good,” “Gender Bombs” (whose lyric provides the album’s title), the poppy “Yesterday Never Tomorrows” and a new recording of “Still in Love Song” follow the same style as the EP, but show a lighter touch than most of the Stills’ higher-profile neo-’80s contemporaries. “Lola Stars and Stripes” and “Allison Krausse” hew closer to American power-pop. (Perhaps the band decided such an approach would be a natural fit for those songs, since their titles include girls’ names.) About half the songs include crisp, understated keyboard support from Liam O’Neil, and Paquet and Fletcher get into some fine guitar interplay on “Ready for It.” Lyrics are the album’s only weakness: they range from glib (“She lied and said she was a virgin / And I asked her / Which version”) to confused and vaguely disdainful (“Don’t go feeling insecure…With an M-16 you’ll feel the surge of your American past”) to just plain bad (“I stumble out of a night club thinking, ‘Animals and insects don’t do drugs’…I softly kick a dog in the teeth…Blood streaming from the palms of my feet…I think I’ll go out and act like I’m celibate / Throw grenades at a Christmas choir”). And the band probably should’ve thought twice about appropriating one of the most emotionally charged catchphrases of the 2000s (“Let’s Roll”), since they had nothing better to say with it than “Lie on the floor of the runway, baby / Wait for the ride / We’ll have a comfortable flight / Don’t be afraid to be afraid with me / And plunge into the wormhole with me.” Like a lot of bands that chase the Bunnymen’s tails, the Stills are more about sound than statements (or sense).
The group went through a few lineup changes before recording its next album: Paquet left, drummer Dave Hamelin added guitar playing and co-production to his responsibilities (leaving just the vocals for Fletcher to handle), and O’Neil came on board full-time. Still, those changes don’t explain why Without Feathers turned out so different from its predecessors. Producer Gus Van Go (who helmed the preceding two CDs) gives the band a warmer sound with more depth and clarity. Rather than making the most of this added space by ringing and chiming more passionately, though, Hamelin’s guitars end up sounding reined in. Worse, the guitars have to compete with E-Street-Band-style piano and organ, not to mention a horn section on a couple of songs (“It Takes Time,” “Destroyer”). The Stills sound as if they’re trying to meld their established ‘80s-rock influences with some new ones — specifically, the American heartland rock of that decade (Springsteen, Mellencamp and their ilk). Those two styles didn’t sit very comfortably alongside one another back then, and they don’t commingle very well now. (The UK edition re-orders the tracks and drops “In the End” in favor of two other songs, “Monsoon” and “Retour à Vega.”)
Fortunately, Oceans Will Rise leaves the previous album’s excess baggage behind. Expanding to a quintet with the official addition of drummer Julien Blais (who had toured with the band following Without Feathers), the group delivers a good set of tunes, and plays them with a much more focused idea of what (or who) it should sound like. The band also has learned how to pace a full-length disc effectively. From the start, the album builds momentum steadily with “Snow in California,” the ska-inflected “Don’t Talk Down” and “Snakecharming the Masses” — which, true to its title, has a faux-Indian tone to the guitar tunings and percussion. The album peaks in the middle: “Being Here,” “Panic” and the driving “Eastern Europe” are the Stills’ best songs to date, with swooning choruses, anthemic guitars, oddly tuned percussion and appealing keyboard riffs that never crowd out the rest of the instruments. Having reached that high level, the group sustains it gracefully with “Hands on Fire,” the slowly building waltz “Everything I Build” and the peculiarly titled “Rooibos/Palm Wine Drinkard.” The disc-closing “Statue of Sirens” winds the CD down nicely with delicate (but not effete) finger-picked guitar and fine vocal harmonies. For all their abilities to create enjoyable music, though, the Stills remain stunted as lyricists. They avoid the egregious gaffes of their past, but they still don’t have anything significant to say. Nevertheless, Oceans Will Rise shows the Stills to be a band that’s still worth hearing.