Graded on a Curve: Σtella, The Break

To quote her Bandcamp bio, Σtella, a resident of Greece, “was born beside the sea and raised by a Canadian nanny who waterskied topless.” If this is indeed true, that’s terrific. What’s indisputably a fact is that Σtella has a new record out, The Break, with its contents illuminating her output as unabashedly pop, often with a synth flavor. One thin dime can procure a dozen examples of this exact same scenario, but they won’t likely be as pleasurable, even when she delves into boldly commercial territory. Part of the reason is musicality that’s deeper than the norm for the style, even if it occasionally seems like that’s only slightly the case. It’s out on LP, CD and digital January 24 through Arbutus Records.

Σtella (real name Stella Chronopoulou) has previously issued a self-titled effort from 2015, with Works for You arriving two years later, but The Break is being described as her international debut; it’s her first for Arbutus, and it’s also the first of the bunch that I’ve heard. Once cognizant of the style she proffers but having yet to drop the needle, I was braced for disappointment, as the subgenre’s contemporary manifestation is (over)loaded with retreads of Depeche Mode, The Human League, and Berlin, etc.

I still haven’t sat down with Σtella’s earlier stuff, in part because The Break bears up to repeated listens. Doing so strengthens the contents as a few subtle cuts above the norm, though I’ll confess that opener “Bellaria” had me expecting something much closer to library music than synth-pop. What’s nifty is that she avoids the cheesiness (to be blunt) that too often emerges in library stuff.

Instead, her track is a delight of cyclical electro wiggle, glistening cascades, intertwined wordless vocals both reverberating and atmospheric, a unifying big beat, and some sneaky guitar late in the game. Successful on its own terms, “Bellaria” also illuminates the instrumental moves that deepen the more forthright pop maneuvers shaping the majority of The Break.

Like “The Race,” which directly follows with its repetition of perky synthetic tones that’re halfway between a tin whistle and a calliope, plus non-trite rhythms, a ‘70s vintage synth solo and more guitar. Most importantly, Σtella’s singing comes to the fore with sophistication and verve. The more upbeat pop-bop of “Simon Says” is next, and if it initially registers as a no-big-deal slice of ’80s jive, it’s seasoned with synth wooziness reminiscent of the decade before that.

“Samba” will surely spark expectations of the titular style, but it’s more of a straight-ahead body-mover, robustly rhythmic (the bass, especially), but also solid as a pop tune, with Σtella’s vocals sealing the deal. And with “Forest,” she crafts a song that’s not so easy to peg to any one certain era (or a couple, even), at least until mattes shift into some electro-sophisto-funk; when Σtella sings “I’ll bring the beer, you’ll bring the wine,” I can easily envision her lolling on a speedboat with Bryan Ferry.

“Monster” combines substantial instrumental layering with the artist’s confident, unfussy vocalizing and leads into the lively mid-tempo swagger-strutting of the title track. It’s also here that I can pick out Madonna as part of Σtella’s vocal lineage, though this connection shouldn’t be overstated, particularly as “I’m Alone” commences with some crisp Caribbean-flavored guitar, shaping another energetic number that’s one of The Break’s highlights.

From here, with its essential rudiments established, The Break begins to coast toward its finale, though that shouldn’t infer a lessening of value. “Numero” features more multifaceted layering, “The River” and closer “The World is Big” are two more slabs of quality songwriting both with Madonna-esque accents, and “Cherry” comes on like a piece of innocuous ’80s pop radio fodder, at least until mid-way through, when it starts leaving the impression that it could’ve been produced by Martin Hannett.

That’s nice, but Σtella’s real strong suit is that even when she’s coming on as utterly pop, as in penultimate track “Sleeping Separate,” she’s doesn’t impact the ear as shallow or hackneyed, and by extension, she’s not once annoying. To the contrary, rather than coming on strong only to gradually whither into the dispensable, The Break’s pleasures grow with repeated listens.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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