The first thing you’ll notice about Torquil Campbell’s (of Stars) side project, Memphis, is how much it sounds like Stars. For fans of Stars, this is your cue to listen up. The next thing you’ll notice isn’t readily apparent, but as the album progresses, an absence makes itself known. There are no gentle serenades from Amy Millan here, no willowy duets, no siren call to be found anywhere. Campbell flexes his musical muscles regardless. The result is a collection of sprightly songs from a member of one of Canada’s premier indie bands.
Despite the missing Millan, A Little Place In The Wilderness charms listeners with heavenly strings, trademark trumpeting, and warm textures. Campbell hasn’t strayed far from the signature sound of his fulltime band, as Milan was wanton to do on Honey From The Tombs, but anyone already converted to Stars’ dramatic and dreamy pop is sure to find enjoyment here. Campbell is far from alone on Wilderness, however, as he constitutes only one half of the band. Old friend Chris Dumont completes the duo, with additional contributions from former bandmate Jimmy Shaw (of Metric) on bass, and Josh Trager (Sam Roberts Band) on drums, among others.
“In The Cinema Alone,” should tease fans anticipating the next Stars album, with a brazen chorus filled with celebratory trumpets and just a touch of reverb. Dumont’s production stands out notably; the arrangements demonstrate a knack for complex layering that somehow retain subtlety. Lead-off track “I Dreamed We Fell Apart,” as well as name-checking Memphis’ first record, finds simple strumming abetted by Campbell and Dumont’s harmonizing vocals.
Wilderness still offers more for the discerning fan, in the way of several tracks that expand upon Campbell’s work with Stars. In the form of spoken-word tracks; the eerie violin sweeps and sordid tale of “A Ghost Story,” and the poem set to a background of keys, guitars, and strings in the orchestral buildup of “In The Highest Room” (spoken by Campbell’s wife Moya). Most surprising is the bawdy and raucous “Let’s Get Incredibly Drunk On Whiskey,” not unlike the teenaged alcohol-fueled revelry of Jason Collett’s “Brownie Hawkeye,” but with clarinet, saxophone and a jazzy, barroom beat. There’s even an instrumental, “Swallows And Amazons,” which features a meandering pedal steel over a programmed beat.
As much as I love Amy Millan’s sultry singing, I can honestly say I didn’t miss her on A Little Place In The Wilderness. Torquil Campbell has proved he has the talent to stand on his own two musical feet, with a little help from his friends of course. Memphis is a more than satisfying alternative that should easily tide over fans until the next Stars release touches down from the night sky.