The Flaming Stars – Sunset & Void

The Flaming Stars
Sunset & Void

It’s quite surprising that The Flaming Stars have taken the best part of eight years to secure an official American outpost at Alternative Tentacles, particularly peculiar when the band’s aesthetic is so absorbed in Americana. That’s not the kind of Americana British music journalists otherwise refer to as alternative country. No, we’re talking the spirit of ’56 to ’76 – trashy garage-rock, suave barroom balladry, Stooges-soaked pre-punk, and more scorching surf guitar than you can shake a Pulp Fiction soundtrack CD at, and that’s before we even mention the letters E, L, V, I and S.
But better late than never, hey? Yes indeed. Picking up the trail with album five (after the US-only story-so-far Ginmill Perfume compilation) isn’t such a bad thing for American record buyers at all, given that it captures the group back on form after a slightly flat patch. The Stars’ last two albums – Pathway (1999) and A Walk on the Wired Side (2001) – had shown signs of stagnation. With the amps sizzling under the strain of thunderous garage guitars, the diversity and depth established on earlier releases was in danger of becoming buried in uncontrolled clatter.
Much of this loose cannon playing can probably be attributed to commander-in-chief Max Décharné’s desire to democratise the record-making process, an ill-judged move given that the hub of The Flaming Stars’ existence rotates around his frequently sublime songwriting – a precisely balanced mixture of Lee Hazlewood’s doomed romanticism and Dirk Bogart’s disheveled wit. Thankfully, though, Décharné seems to have re-assumed his natural position as dexterous despot for the best Flaming Stars album in quite some time. An assured amalgam of ballads, rockers, and ear-bleeding instrumentals, Sunset & Void captures the band laying down some incredibly ambidextrous arrangements whilst staying true to core songwriting values.
The opening “A Little Bit Like You” is a typically tight Stars pop tune. With its ringing garage guitar chords, clattering rockabilly drums, and antique organs, Max and the boys break open the album with breakneck bravado. Plenty more delights unfurl in its wake. “Cash 22” is a twangy and tragic comic tale of a hapless romantic repeatedly running himself ragged for the sake of his money-grabbing object of desire. Like a tear ‘n’ bear stained club crooner tinkling and drinking himself silly after closing time, Max wheels out his busted-up piano for the exquisitely pretty “Mansion House Blues” and “Five for the Road.” They’re slow-burners that brilliantly allude to familiar Flaming Stars stories where boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl doesn’t return the compliment, boy drinks himself under the table and then under the floorboards.
Elsewhere a sizeable slice of the stylistic stealing comes from Latin-vibed Spaghetti Western soundtracks. Thus, “Sands, Flamingo, Desert Inn” is a glum account of romance and revenge saturated in Morricone moodiness. “Mexican Roulette” is a maraca-driven trip into Calexico’s mariachi neighbourhood. Whilst the motoring mambo shuffle of “Midnight Train” is a dead-ringer for at least two early songs by London’s long-standing slinky and swampy rockers Gallon Drunk, however, such plagiarism is permissible given that Max once drummed for the band in the early-90s.
Décharné’s dictatorial restraints are eased a little for the requisite instrumental interludes. This allows bassist Paul Dempsey and guitarist Mark Hosking to rightfully indulge their Link Wray and Dick Dale obsessions with the apocalyptic surf rumble of “Killjoy.” But it’s rascally drummer Joe Whitney who flexes his democratic muscles most demonstratively with “Baby Steps” and “The Long Walk Home” – which both sound like rather fine outtakes from the Get Carter soundtrack, albeit played by a drunken jazz band falling down a spiral staircase.
Throughout the course of Sunset & Void, the band’s playing is meticulously textured. Pianos twinkle, organs wheeze, guitars roar into the fore as well as retreating to the backdrop. The percussive beds have as much natural rhythm as James Brown’s hips, and Max’s murmuring croon flips fluidly between Lou Reed deadpan and lugubrious Nick Cave.
Whether it’s been the extensive tours of America’s sleaziest saloon bars or a surreptitious shot of The Rolling Stones’ miraculous forever-old-but-never-quite-dead pick-me-up-potion, The Flaming Stars are back in great condition. Although Sunset & Void doesn’t match the classic status of the band’s Songs from the Bar Room Floor (1996) debut or its sibling singles collection Bring Me the Rest of Alfredo Garcia (1997), it’s still one of the most dynamic and deliciously distinctive records you’ll hear this year. They might be a little short on great balls of fire these days, but The Flaming Stars keep their neon blinking defiantly, all day and all of the night.