The list of bands to which Stars Like Fleas is connected through one or more members reads something like a who’s who of indie music in the past decade. Members of TV on the Radio, Celebration, Fiery Furnaces, Mercury Rev, Out Hud, At The Drive-In and Super Furry Animals have been part of this Brooklyn “collective” (a two-word name to describe 90 percent of bands recording music today), making up a list that is awfully impressive, but completely misleading in terms of what one might expect. There is no fuzz-rock, disco, post-hardcore, quirky Welsh pop or avant-blues to be heard from this 10+ piece outfit. Stars Like Fleas is a less tangible entity in its art than any of its members’ prior outfits. Neither grooves nor riffs, nor beats, nor hooks drive the music of Stars Like Fleas; instead, they seem to soar purely on the power of emotion and anguish.
In a manner of speaking, Stars Like Fleas overwhelm with subtlety. While their dense and intricate compositions occasionally swell to loud, heart-wrenching climaxes, they thrive on sonic minutiae. Delicate piano melodies, white noise, feedback, the gentle weeping of strings and the trembling, fragile vocals of Montgomery Knott make up the framework of each SLF song. While a thousand things could be going on at once, each part is so slight and so subdued that, in combination, they create a chorus of whispers. And given the space between each note, they seem to crystallize into an artfully woven spider’s web of sound.
“Karma’s Hoax” is initially a gentle sort of song, floating carefully along each chilly, twinkling note. Yet a squealing saxophone punctuates the atmosphere with a sort of harsh aimlessness, and ultimately a gigantic, distorted mass of noise erupts within the song, breaking free of the calm, if only temporarily. In the wrong hands, this could come across as purely annoying, but Stars Like Fleas manage to make such a juxtaposition glorious. “I Was Only Dancing” finds the group attempting a slightly different approach, building into an accessible pop song rather than a cacophony, allowing each piece to fall into place to ultimately churn out a song that sounds more like The Flaming Lips than Xiu Xiu’s more withdrawn tracks. The sweet “Early Riser” showcases a brief, upbeat rhythm and chorus of “da da das” before the melody disappears altogether, temporarily, only to continue a pattern of disappearance and re-emergence.
Banjos drive the folksy “Berbers In Tennis Shoes,” which ornately escalates into a quirky chamber pop song that operates like a perfectly orchestrated toy store in motion. “Toast Siren” hauntingly screeches like an approaching specter, only to be overtaken by a militant percussion procession. “You Are My Memoir” even begins amiably enough, with drum machine and gentle guitar, soon erupting into a big, weird, falsetto indie poperetta.
Given that so many different artists and personalities contribute to Stars Like Fleas, it’s no wonder that their album The Ken Burns Effect runs such a wide range of sounds and textures. One thing that ultimately shines through each of the dense layers held therein is a commitment to beauty and delicateness, no matter how loud or how soft the song.
Xiu Xiu – La Forêt
Balustrade Ensemble – Capsules
Sam Amidon – All Is Well
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.