Stars of Track and Field
Centuries Before Love and War
ever has a band appeared easier to peg than this. Stars of Track and Field are from Portland; they’re named after a Belle and Sebastian song; they play Britpoppy anthems with electronic percussion spread underneath; their album is called Centuries Before Love and War and its cover is mostly crumpled white paper. Skepticism towards this aesthetic runs thick through the bicycle-scattered arteries of my adoptive town: just as I’ve never met anyone from Seattle not cynical about Nirvana, so the average Portlander has learned to beware Transcendentalists bearing six-strings.
On first glance there’s little to distinguish Stars of Track and Field from the more famous ambassadors of their childlike melancholy: if Death Cab doesn’t come to mind, Ben Gibbard’s glitch-pop side project certainly will; and breaths of Built to Spill and Carissa’s Wierd meander through this album’s autumn wind. The lyrics are littered with robots, spaceships, and supernovas, not as emblems of dorkiness but as held-over preoccupations of childhood. There’s not much here you wouldn’t expect: ten songs about romance, fragility, and tall trees.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The obvious if undeserving centerpiece here is “Movies of Antarctica,” four-and-a-half minutes of chime and swoop that draws most prominently from the haze into which Britpop has evolved—not the swagger of Oasis but the croon of Snow Patrol, vocals skating over a frozen lake while guitars chime and end-titles roll. For all its charm—and it’s got some charm, even to someone who’s never considered Snow Patrol more than a cripplingly earnest mediocrity—it’s the track on which everything engrossing or interesting about the album is most thoroughly eschewed: the band’s skill at sprinkling electronic beats across the clean surfaces of their guitars is relegated to a perfunctory opening measure, and the slow shifts from electric to acoustic that mark Centuries Before Love and War’s best moments are absent.
Consider the shorter and mellower “With You,” which wanders between filtered, stuttering verses and chiming choruses with a charming if safe eclecticism; or “Real Time,” which opens with the magnificently sappy couplet “Birds watching from the lines / As your heart beats one thousand times”: these songs allow the jumpy chirp of glitch-pop to undermine the straightforward anthems being graverobbed. And if the record’s second half can melt together, glittering but dull, album closer “Fantastic,” saves it by coming close to hitting the sweet-spot for which all these tracks strive. All of Centuries Before Love and War sounds good on a rainy night, but “Fantastic” sounds great: constructed mostly of skitter and hum, it summons the ubiquitous percolating guitar with more restraint than its album-mates, and the combination so gently and wistfully supports the lyrics—“You light on fire / I’ll be outside / Last one to notice / Run for your life,” delivered in a delicate but rising croon that turns the line into something like a sing-along—that the song lives up to its name.
You might be sick of this stuff, and you might be right. But before you dismiss all this studied delicacy as this country’s dampest corner’s continuing adventures in preciousness, consider the following: there’s something to be said not only for unabashed romanticism but unabashed Romanticism, not only for guileless love songs but for an understanding of what evergreens and autumn leaves and fifth-grade sadness sound like, especially when yanked into memory by an adulthood’s damp city night. “Somewhere somehow sometime ago” begins “With You.” This is music to be borne back ceaselessly by.