Culture | Fleas, please

Twelve musicians from Brooklyn mumble their way though postmodern romance

Stars Like Fleas have been around since 1998, but if you haven’t heard of them, you’re not alone. The Brooklyn band – featuring members of Beirut, TV on the Radio, Fiery Furnaces, Tall Firs, and John Zorn’s free-jazz ensembles – rarely leaves their home city. Sam Ubl, of Stylus magazine, suggested that the band will “never get anyone’s time of day, and frankly they’re too retiring to warrant an outcry over it.”

However, since the release of their newest record, The Ken Burns Effect, the group seems to be reaching a broader audience.

The band – founded by Shannon Fields and Montgomery Knott – experiments with a wide range of sounds and genres, including electronic, folk, and improvisational jazz; a feat made easier by the acoustic variety 12 musicians bring to a song. Stars Like Fleas’s subtle layering of styles and tunes creates a textured, dynamic sound.

Their latest album maintains the strange mishmash of sounds and styles present in their earlier albums (Took the Ass for a Drive and Sun Lights Down on the Fence), but takes a slightly tighter focus. Their music is as mournful and evocative as ever, but it’s gained a subtle energy. The songs on The Ken Burns Effect are faster and more cogent, making the overall listening experience more cohesive.

Lyrically, the songs maintain their pseudo-narrative, stream-of-consciousness drive. In “I Was Only Dancing” Knott croons: “Learn that form of love / rip away sounds heard the spreading fingers / I’m in love with hollow bullets / on the weight of which she said / ‘a modern weight with a tighter skin.’” This melancholic “almost-story” is typical of the band’s lyrics, which consistently epitomize postmodern romanticism.

Stars Like Fleas cannot be described as easy listening. The soft, dreamy texture of much of their music is punctured by sudden starts and stops, gleefully haphazard transitions, and piercingly sharp saxophone. In “Karma’s Hoax,” a song on the new record, the haunting, avant-garde fusion of jazz and folk that often characterizes the band’s sound is violently interrupted by electronic rock that’s almost as startling in its departure as its entrance.

One of the album’s strongest moments is the barbed attack of violins 30 seconds into “I Was Only Dancing,” which provide a faintly dissonant counterpoint to Knott’s slow, half-spoken – and more than half-mumbled – vocals. The songs on The Ken Burns Effect are engaging and surprising – the melodies themselves are slightly off-key and far too improvisational for passive listening.

The jumble of instruments and musicians adds to the music’s eclectic, almost scattered feel. The sax and vocals, especially, share a mournful whine that demands attention. Stars Like Fleas’s music is wonderfully weird, incorporating a multitude of styles to create something sad, sweet, and vaguely off-putting. That said, fully appreciating The Ken Burns Effect requires attention. If you’re only half-listening, the unexpected musical choices and complex layering can sound cacophonous and jumbled.

The effort required to appreciate Stars Like Fleas is completely worth it, offering a clever, interesting, and startlingly pretty reward.

Stars Like Fleas play at lab.synthèse on September 14 with Echoes Still Singing Limbs. Doors are at 9 p.m. and admission is $5.


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