Helen Stellar: Newton/Below Radar

Helen Stellar surrounds you, enfolds you, and inhabits you. The first time I heard Helen Stellar, I thought they sounded like they transmitting from somewhere beyond these shores. By that I don’t mean Europe, though they often come across as essentially a shoegazer band (Doves?). Helen Stellar sounded as if they came from the ether.

Their official output numbers eight songs from two EPs. Both appear designed to carefully build the look and feel of the band. I like a band that cares about the look as well as the sound, as long as the sound lives up to the look. The Newton EP (2001) is an infectious four-song collection. “Popris” seems to float on this wonderful sea of drum/guitar/keyboard with vocalist Jim Evens singing from a hazy mist. It is hard to describe; the best I can come up with is that it is not in your face. Helen Stellar instead surrounds you, enfolds you, and inhabits you on this EP. There are four standout tracks on this first disc.

In my praise, I don’t want to give you the idea of that the second EP, Below Radar (2002), is not as good as Newton; it is, indeed, a great CD by any standard. Newton was just extraordinary. Once again, there are four songs that paint emotions across a sonic backdrop. “Temporary Solutions” is the best of the four: a song that builds slowly and, when the words finally come, they are revealing: “I tend to over analyze/it helps me to desensitize/fall away, there’s no more me…/still, still.” Perhaps that is a small key to this infinitely interesting band. Each idea is crafted to its fullest effect. Each song is a tiny part of this giant world that Helen Stellar is building. “Diane” doesn’t seem to fit with the other three. It seems almost poppy compared with its siblings, though its subject matter is bleak and filled with disparaging remarks. Knowing this makes me like it a bit more, but I wish it was on the other side of the album.

When that album comes along, hopefully these three guys (who moved from Chicago to Madison to be musicians, as opposed to people with day jobs who are musicians when they have the time) will craft a disk with the quality of these two EPs. And when they do, they will inhabit all of us.

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