Commentary

Old favorites still bring excitement

Updated: July 14, 2009, 11:54 AM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

Like many music junkies, I like the thrill of finding a new band. I feel cool, like I know the latest gossip before anyone else. Discovering The Rural Alberta Advantage before anyone else is infinitely more exciting than discussing the latest R.E.M. record, just like a drunken make-out with a new girl at the bar is more exciting than buying razors so the girlfriend you've had for five years can shave her legs.

[+] EnlargeShawn Christensen
Jason Squires/Getty ImaghesEasing back on being himself was a "Civilized" approach for Shawn Christensen of Stellastarr*.

But, whether we Cro-Magnon like it or not, sometimes girlfriends sneak their way into our lives. And no one likes a girlfriend with hairy legs. So, today, I will leave a discussion of the latest and greatest to whichever blogger has decided that Tiny Masters of Today is going to save music. While he's dissecting "Skeletons," I'll be buying razors. Razors that go by the names of Stellastarr* and Our Lady Peace.

In one of my first weeks as a contributor to ESPN.com, I wanted to write about a concert I'd recently seen. But at the time, I was expected to confine my thoughts to a basketball-related box. So, in an effort to squeeze in a reference to the band, I attempted to compare Larry Bird with the bassist from Stellastarr*.

Now I have a column about music, so I can write about Stellastarr* without fear of editorial reprisal. Of course, I don't have as many readers; interest in sports dwarfs interest in music on a scale similar to the relationship between planet Earth and a globe. But that's OK. Enlightenment will come.

Stellastarr*'s third album, "Civilized," was released July 7 by some label. It might have been their label, called Bloated Wife Records, or it might have been a quasi-independent arm of Warner Music Group. I bring that up only because I spent an hour trying to determine which was the case and, subsequently, wanted to justify my time expenditure with one (now two) sentences. The album's cover, which looks like it was designed by a semi-precocious third-grader, would lead one to believe the do-it-yourself story. The album's sound, which is polished and well-produced, makes me think that Warner had more to do with its creation than it was letting on.

I was leery of Stellastarr*'s new release. As I documented years ago, I was almost as enthusiastic about the band's first album as I am for the looks of the band's bassist. Their second effort, though, was less thrilling, aside from the song "Sweet Troubled Soul," which still makes me happy every time I hear it.

I shouldn't have worried so. "Civilized" is a lovely record, highlighted for me by "Tokyo Sky" (which, if I were allowed to characterize -- and, of course I now am -- I would liken to a meet-up between The Cure and the Smashing Pumpkins on a rainy dock in Portland, Ore.). There's emotion, fuzzy guitars and a claustrophobic closeness that makes me think of the Pacific Northwest. And longshoremen, apparently.

For the recorded version (recommended), go to lala.com here. Input your e-mail and a password and you'll have access to mp3 versions of just about anything you want. And no, I'm not getting paid by lala.com. But it is a convenient music site.

For a live version that doesn't involve e-mail input, listen here.

Music dork-out ahead. Feel free to zone out to "Tokyo Sky" and skip the next paragraph.

Stellastarr*'s lead singer, Shawn Christensen, has a unique voice that, when utilized correctly, adds a distinct sound to the band's work. Unfortunately, that voice can be grating when he tries too hard. That is, when he tries to make his voice sound like his voice. I know, that didn't make sense. Let me put it this way: If someone tells you you're funny, you might be tempted to try to be funny, instead of being yourself and allowing your sense of humor to come across naturally. (File under: Advice for Dane Cook.)

On "Civilized," it seems someone told Christensen to ease back on trying to be himself, and it works. In addition, someone decided to let Amanda Tannen contribute more of her vocal talents to the record. It was a good decision.

If Stellastarr* continues to progress, I may one day hold them in the same esteem as one of my favorite bands, the venerable Canadian outfit Our Lady Peace.

(Pause for groans from any hipsters who've found their way to my column.)

I take more than my share of abuse for my affection for Our Lady Peace but, because I'm a rejection and criticism addict, I will press on, undaunted. Few groups have spanned the music-loving section of my life, which started when I was 15, as well as have Our Lady Peace. Four of their albums would make my all-time top 200. It's a feat that is, admittedly, only important to me, but the only other bands that can claim similar status are Nine Inch Nails and Pearl Jam. (Although "Vitalogy" -- even though people love to love it -- is a wobbler.)

[+] EnlargeRaine Maida
Getty ImagesRaine Maida and Our Lady Peace go back a long way with Paul Shirley's music collection.

Side note: Bands with the potential to get to the four in 200 mark: The National, Interpol, TV On the Radio, New Pornographers and the Drive-By Truckers.

My love for Our Lady Peace began in my brother Dan's teal 1991 Grand Am, on the way to a basketball tournament in Lawrence, Kan., where we would make a rare appearance on the court together and also where he would dislocate his pinkie finger in spectacular fashion in the tournament's final.

I'd heard Our Lady Peace's "Superman's Dead," but had been turned off by lead singer Raine Maida's voice, and so had dismissed the band. Dan cued up "4 AM" from OLP's "Clumsy" on the Sony Discman that was connected to his tape player and told me to listen closely.

He was right to make me pay attention to the song. It displays Maida's voice at its best -- unforgettable, and seemingly on the edge of collapse. Even now, 15 years after the release of "Clumsy," the song is powerful enough to transport me back to a more innocent time, riding in my brother's car on the way to a basketball game, proud of him for knowing more about music than I did.

Next came "Happiness ... Is Not a Fish You Can Catch", which also features my siblings as associative forces. "Happiness" came out in 1999, at the height of the Napster era. Dan and my next youngest brother Matt guided their oldest -- and most computer unsavvy -- brother in the download of the album through a dial-up connection and onto our parents' computer while I was home from college. In fact, the digital copy on my laptop is the same one we, er, borrowed, complete with audio hiccups in the song "Potato Girl" that cause me, whenever I hear an intact version of the song, to think something is wrong.

College brought "Spiritual Machines," which got me through a devastating NCAA tournament loss. And then, just one year later, when I was sure OLP had done all they would in music, came "Gravity." That record is probably their most accessible and, if it weren't for the emotional attachments between the other albums and my brain, is a release for which I could make a case as best from the band. I vividly remember listening to it in my apartment in Greece, completely cut off from the world and unknowingly beginning a writing career by pouring my confusion into my computer and then sending those messy missives to friends and family back home.

Obviously, something about Our Lady Peace connects with me more than it does for most. Admittedly, other bands have written more lyrically profound songs. But it's possible that I don't need such profundity. Maybe I'm simply not that deep. Maybe I need accessibility. Or maybe Our Lady Peace happened to come along at exactly the right time.

In the end, imperfection might be the key to my love of Our Lady Peace. In its fragility and unpredictability, Maida's voice pulls at me. His band makes mistakes, but they keep at it, like a couple who's been married longer than any of their friends thought possible.

Their latest record, "Burn Burn," which comes out July 21, is no different. At least two songs shouldn't have made it onto the album, including the first single, "All You Did Was Save My Life," which is not very good. But some moments make the album worth purchasing on their own: At around the 2:10 mark on the song "Monkey Brains," the band switches from hard rock to meaningful acoustic. (Listen to a live version here. No lala.com link because the album hasn't come out yet.) The effect is devastating. To me, anyway. Someone else might have a different reaction entirely, especially if that someone is less susceptible to tempo changes and sappy lyrics.

It seems unlikely that "Burn Burn" will make Our Lady Peace stars in the U.S., a status that has always eluded them. But for those of us who've always liked them -- and who might have enjoyed that their fame has remained only cult-level in this country -- the album is a solid effort that will, if nothing else, effectively link OLP with its past.

It may not be as top-to-bottom good as "Gravity." It doesn't evoke the same emotions as "Spiritual Machines." It doesn't carry the immediacy or passion of "Clumsy." But I like it all the same, much like I would still love a girlfriend even after I figured out that doing so sometimes involved late-night crying sessions, tampons in the trash can, and trips to Walgreens to buy her a razor.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.

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