The pop-music charts of the early '60s often doubled as diagrams of the widening generation gap, as the untamed sound of early rock clashed with Vegas-slick entertainers scrambling to stay hip. Then The Beatles started peppering albums with light ballads like "Yesterday" and "Michelle," and The Beach Boys started working mind vacations like "Let's Go Away for Awhile" into their repertoire. Suddenly, adult sophistication and pining for the leisure pastimes of the middle-aged became viable to a group of kids who were used to pursuing wilder kicks. Since then, rock musicians from Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman to Air and The Ladybug Transistor have dabbled in romanticizing generational displacement.
New York lounge-pop act Ivy is so into the easygoing lifestyle that it actually licensed one of its songs for a cruise-ship ad. Ivy has a definite rock edge—guitarist-songwriter Adam Schlesinger, who splits time between Ivy and Fountains Of Wayne, makes sure of that. But while Schlesinger's guitar grinds away in the background, lead singer Dominique Durand whispers smoothly and sadly, and utility man Andy Chase fills the spaces around her voice with a thick rope of instruments that all describe the same cool breeze. On Ivy's fourth original album, In The Clear, the band sticks with uptempo, busy arrangements, approximating the feeling of anxious young urban professionals trying to catch a breath. The record's simultaneously exciting and relaxing: Songs like "Tess Don't Tell" surge forward like a trans-oceanic jet, while "Keep Moving" weaves disco and soft rock into a mix that goes down as smooth as ice-cold gin, even as Durand sings about how hard it is to get over the loss of a loved one. The two sides come together on In The Clear's apotheosis, "Corners Of Your Mind," a rush of rapidly-strummed guitars and pounding piano that blows up like a gust of wind, leaving listeners refreshed and surprisingly un-mussed.
On Stars' breakthrough 2003 album Heart, the Montreal band sounded like Ivy with a techno-pop sheen. For record number three, Set Yourself On Fire, the band has replaced a lot of the electronics with actual strings and horns, which should make its music even Ivy-er, except that Stars has different intentions. Co-vocalists Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan trade lines and accusations like a revamped Human League, remaking "Don't You Want Me" for the 21st century. Set Yourself On Fire is packed with songs like "Reunion," which jangles and bounces like a kiddie toy, while Torquil sings about furtive flirtations at a drunken high-school reunion. ("'Tainted Love''s too fast to dance to / So let's leave them all behind," he coos.) Like Ivy and other suave postmodern light-rockers, Stars sounds better in small bites than big gulps, but when it pulls together songs with the poise and passion of "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead" and "The First Five Times," it makes being a grown-up sound cooler than youth.