The Self Help Group – Dead Stars
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The Self Help Group

The Self Help Group – Dead Stars

The Self Help Group are the brainchild of Brighton singer-songwriter Mark Bruce, who formed the band in 2009 to showcase his skill for crafting a good tune around an unusual tale. Dead Stars is the bands second studio outing, impeccably produced by Jamie Freeman, it has a more solid band-based feel than their début Not Waving But Drowning. With live performances at the core there's a propulsion to the songs' rhythm section, especially on jauntier cuts like first single 'Luigi's Waltz', which has been layered throughout with lush sounding instrumentation – acoustic and electric guitars, electric pianos, percussion, strings, soft bass guitar and those stacked three-part harmony vocals almost throughout every song.

The first track 'Myrtle Mae' opens with those powerful harmonies and tells the story of a millionaire who became a recluse after the death of their child. There's an airiness to the song, it almost feels like it's floating, and some nice horns add an air of sophistication. 'Smile Club' tells another fascinating story, Hungarian authorities set up Smile Clubs to teach people how to smile in an attempt to combat the high suicide rate. The track is a gently strummed, mid-tempo number that manages to sound strangely melancholy and jolly simultaneously. It strips down at the end from a Belle & Sebastian-esque canter to a half-time mellow outro of sombre 'oohs'.

'Luigi's Waltz' is up next, with it's lolloping groove and touches of psychedelia, most prominently in the phased vocals – although I'm not a huge fan of the effect as it sort of dehumanises the vocals and makes the lyrics harder to decipher. The electric guitar on this track is very well measured though, lovely notes popping out in all the right places, floating on top of the tom-tom heavy groove. Taking away the drums and dropping the tempo 'Trieste' is very pretty, starting with a sampled voice and decorated with lovely twinkling sounds that are reminiscent of an old wind-up music box – possibly reversed, with a gentle wood-block that marks the passing time.

The beginning of 'Eddie's House' really reminds me of 'There There' by Radiohead with it's rolling tom-tom groove. The song tells the story of a boy who wrote to a famous architect to ask him to design a kennel for his dog – the song seems to be sung from the perspective of the dog who does not appear to have been impressed by the results. There's a great outro on the next song 'Broken Arrow' where it strips down to acoustic guitar and a tremolo heavy electric. We get to hear Mark's voice, in a rare moment of it standing on it's own, he sings “I am the light of the sun, and the power, and the pain”, a line that is then repeated as he is joined by more and more voices adding harmonies... then the band kicks in and just as the long-anticipated crescendo ought to hit us the track abruptly and suddenly ends.

'Woody's Song' is a melancholic number about Woody Guthrie, led by a gently finger-picked guitar. It's short at 2:17, and ends with a lush vocal flourish with the line “they should fall at your feet”. 'Tides' is a dramatic builder, full of tension and a strong melody that I remember from seeing the band live a year or so ago at the Dome Studio Theatre. 'Quintland' is another fascinating story song, which talks about a set of quintuplets who were taken from their parents and turned into a tourist attraction. The song shows off a fantastic bit of inter-play between the drums and bass and some lovely strings, a twisting cello line that is pure class. This track almost sounds like something Radiohead would have recorded during their In Rainbows sessions, until an unexpected change after nearly three minutes which disrupts the mellow groove the song had settled into. It's a fine coda with a repeating refrain, but for me it lacks the teeth necessary to really hammer it home.

'Birds Still Sing' starts with some dusty distant guitar and what sounds like a lap steel guitar, building an atmosphere of instant Americana. The broken beat from the rhythm section is another great choice, lifting the track by providing it with an unusual anticipatory feel, until a chorus of 'oohs' come in and fills up all the space, with an almost Gospel sound. 'The Streak' strips things back again, starting with Mark's guitar and vocals, the harmonies are there but not on every line and there's an e-bowed electric guitar providing distant atmospherics. The drums kick in and introduces the rest of the band who stick around for the rest of the track, although they hold back for the verses giving the song a nice push and pull. The trumpet is a nice touch, but it doesn't really go anywhere, once it's introduced it just repeats the same simple melody, ultimately the song feels a little over-long at 6:30ish.

There are a great set of sounds built up around 'The Box' which evokes this sense of wonder at the vastness of space – subtle bleeping noises in the background, luscious violin and harmonic strikes and a synth bass tone that slowly builds the tension toward the inevitable introduction of the rhythm section. That first verse sounds like a track from Sigur Ros's début album, in fact the ascending lone falsetto vocal at the end sounds like something Jonsi might do! The track fades out and a child's voice appears explaining to us, “it's quite simple – they are dead stars looking back up at the sky”! A charming perspective on NASA scientist Dr. Michelle Thaller's assertion that the atoms in our bodies were born when an ancient star collapsed.
This is a beautifully put together album, sophisticated mature pop bristling with the tenets of folk, indie and Americana and perfect for those of you who prefer their music with no jagged edges. There's no anger really, in these fantastical tales, only melancholy and introspection. For my own taste I find the constant harmony vocals a little over-bearing, with every line delivered by several people some of the emotion gets lost, especially as those top notes are mostly belted out full force, not quite gale force like Florence Welch, but too strong to match the fragility of the themes and music at times. I also find that those fascinating stories get a bit lost without a central narrator, I'd like to hear different voices step into that role throughout the album with more counter-point vocal lines and less slab harmonies – but that's just my preference. The vocals are often the make or break thing about a band, that either draws you in or sends you packing and unfortunately it doesn't quite hit the mark for me.
Having said that there is so much to love about this album, it's relaxing and, yes, it is middle of the road – which may not be for everyone, but this is a band that knows what it does and does it very well indeed. It's skilful, thoughtfully constructed and an impressive, consistent body of work that's sure to draw more and more followers in to appreciate this hard working band and the song-writing talent that underpins it all.
Adam Kidd



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