(Sony)



*****



Review:

Russell Baillie



Of course it sounds polished and professional, they'll say. The singer's the sister of whatshername. It's got a major label behind it. The co-producer's a former 80s pop star. Like, no wonder. Yes, well, there'll be a few who miss the point about Stellar*'s debut album as it and the band become increasingly unavoidable in the next few months.

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The point being: it's simply great.



The band fronted by Boh Runga - the musically bossier older sister of singer-songwriter Bic - looked for a while like also-rans. Just another female-fronted band with an approach too rock for the cool alternative vote and little chance of cracking what we around here laughingly refer to as "the big time."



Boy, didn't something go right in the songwriting and recording departments on the way to Mix.



Here's an album which neatly takes in electro-pulsed rock swagger and soul-shaped downbeat songs of similar digitally enhanced textures, all shot through with a pop verve and hook-factor to make it a whoa-to-go wonder. Across its 11 tracks you get an album that, from its outward signs like first hit What You Do (aka Bastard) and current single Violent, might seem like a toughie.



It's actually sweetly soft-centred, especially when it strikes the trio of Nerve and Consequences, Undone and Tenderhook at the halfway mark, as well as the closing double of Breather and You.



All these show this songwriting Runga to be something of a Chrissie Hynde/Neil Finn pop classicist in her tunes. And as she shows on the roof-lifting delivery of Tenderhook and elsewhere, she sure can sing, too.


Her backers - drummer Andrew Maclaren, bassist Kurt Shanks, guitarist Chris van de Geer, with the guidance of co-producer Tom Bailey - are more sonic suite than guitar band. That much-programmed backing sounds natural and spacious - and on those ballads, intimate - when it's not rocking in Stellar*'s deliberate way.



Yes, they can sound like Garbage, especially on Every Girl early in the piece. And the opening track, the hydraulic dance-rocker Violent, might be the first song to pale from its altogether-now "whoa-ohs" in its quiet bit. But the drama offered by Slowburn (which reminds of a Headless Chickens-styled scorch) and What You Do shows Mix's tough stuff is as exciting as its quieter broodings are enchanting.



All of which means this is not only a startling debut but a great pop record. Stellar* might have acquired an asterix to their name but they aren't about to become anyone's footnote.