Stars' sixth studio album The North may be one of the albums of the year but its release in the UK has been haphazard to say the least - a fact acknowledged by singer Torquil Campbell tonight when he tells the audience to "hit someone over the hit" in order to acquire it. Nonetheless, The Garage is sold-out, testament to the devoted fan-base the band has quietly built in their 12 year span. If The North feels like the kind of album which pushes a band over the edge into stardom, there is no hint of frustration tonight at playing a relatively small venue. Instead there is only palpable excitement, with Campbell devoting several minutes to informing the audience of his love for London and how he had taken his child to Buckingham Palace earlier that day. The band is a long way from its native Canada and they are obviously relishing the opportunities that affords.
They take to the stage to the strains of Let 'Em In by Paul McCartney's Wings. It's an apt introduction as the band shares McCartney's gift for pure melodies and songs which almost seem to make the heart burst. Stars' opening song The Theory of Relativity is, however, one of their most rhythmic songs to date, its commanding synths and shuffling percussion recalling prime New Order. It's an adept update of Stars' sound, building on the core interaction between Campbell and female vocalist Amy Millan. It's quickly evident that The North's official unavailability is not an issue in this internet age, the crowd welcoming the song as an old friend. Still, it's a Friday night and there's a strong sense that many present would welcome most anything musical, the band providing a backdrop to a night out. It is irritating at times, not least during more intimate moments like the sublime Dead Hearts when moving lyrics about "kids that I once knew" are forced to compete with a constant low-level chatter. The classic Ageless Beauty from career peak Set Yourself On Fire prove to be arresting, however, inducing euphoric sing-alongs and rapt affection.
Indeed, the evening is informative in highlighting just how strong Stars' catalogue is. The anthemic Take Me To The Riot is preceded by a verse from The Smiths' Reel Around The Fountain and it's remarkable how well the two songs complement each other. The wry humour and earnest angst of The Smiths is a clear influence on Stars but not an oppressive one - the almost Scissor Sisters-sounding We Don't Want Your Body from 2010's The Five Ghosts exemplifies how the band keep progressing and developing. In fact this dynamism is very much in evidence from the transformation of the sweet-hearted Soft Revolution into a soaring epic and the addition of a driving military drum beat to Midnight Coward (inspiring joyous clapping in the audience). It's re-assuring that recent song Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It is a set highlight, its wry lyrics serving almost as a commentary on the gig itself ("The world won't listen to this song and the radio won't play it, but if you like it sing along.")
As mentioned, however, Stars' basic strength rests in the interplay between Campbell and Millan, an electric and charismatic interaction which is exemplified in the joyously arch duet Elevator Love Letter. It finds its highest expression however in Your Ex-Lover Is Dead, the song which has more than any other become Stars' signature. Its arrival midway through tonight's set is greeted with a roar of approval and the audience's enthusiasm adds a further appealing dimension to Campbell and Millan's magnetism. It's at once joyful and quietly moving.
If there is any fault to be found tonight it's that the set feels somewhat predictable and lacking in spontaneity - an understandable complaint given that tonight's show comes after scores of gigs in recent months. Nonetheless, it's an entertaining evening which sees an accomplished band effortlessly playing to their strengths. Now if only they'd sort out a proper release for that album.