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Trembling Blue Stars

Alive to Every Smile (Sub Pop)

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An illuminating statement of grandeur and elegance, the Trembling Blue Stars' Alive to Every Smile is simply the best new romantic Brit-rock album since Belle & Sebastian's Tigermilk. Comparisons to B&S have plagued this group, the latest vehicle of ex-Field Mice singer-guitarist Robert Wratten and his various ingenues. It's a natural comparison: The group has even installed its own chanteuse, in the form of Beth Arzy, to rival Belle's own Isobel Campbell. However, whereas Belle & Sebastian are at times sparse, torchy, and smoldering, Trembling Blue Stars are unfailingly opulent. The soup-like murk of "With Every Story," with its wafting atmospherics and intricate labyrinth of grandiloquent background vocals, is actually more reminiscent of such fey '80s practitioners as the Pet Shop Boys and the Smiths. Wratten's flippant recoil on "The Ghost of an Unkissed Kiss" is reminiscent of the Smiths' "The Boy With a Thorn in His Side," and elsewhere the same kind of brooding Morrissey-esque demeanor pervades.

Actually, it all goes back to Joy Division, but the '80s Brit synthboys added a lot of gloss to the formula. Trembling Blue Stars seem to be following in that tradition. And while that may have been totally unhip in the '80s, it's right on now. In contrast to the maddening, foot-stomping bellyaching of the current milieu, these gossamer sounds exude an elegance that recalls a time when people actually wrote melodies instead of synchronized beats and mechanical jams. Songs like "Here All Day" and "Ammunition" are simply heartbreaking, because that's what the sullen Wratten expresses best, and because they're sad reminders of what a lost art this kind of chic songwriting really is.

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