- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

The name of the band is Trembling Blue Stars, and the name of its most recent album is "Broken by Whispers," and that should tell you all you need to know about the delicate, lovelorn music the group's songwriting leader Robert Wratten creates. The band opens for the Ocean Blue at the Metro Cafe on Sunday.

Mr. Wratten holds a hallowed place among fans of the "twee" style for his work with cult favorites the Field Mice in the late 1980s and early '90s. The twee style is known for bringing softness and overt sincerity to the indie pop scene, and the Field Mice have gained such respect over the years that they have been mentioned by some as the bridge between '80s legends the Smiths and the critically acclaimed Belle and Sebastian of today.

High praise indeed, but a listen to "Broken by Whispers," which was released last year, shows that whether or not one cares for the introverted, melancholy pop he crafts, it cannot be denied that Mr. Wratten has a gift for writing flawless, catchy tunes about anguish and heartache.

The first two Trembling Blue Stars albums, 1996's "Her Handwriting" and 1998's "Lips That Taste of Tears," allegedly chronicle Mr. Wratten's pain over his breakup with girlfriend Annemari Davis, who played in both the Field Mice and Northern Picture Library, a band Mr. Wratten formed after the Field Mice broke up in 1991. That there has been some reconciliation of sorts is evident in the fact that Miss Davis provides backing vocals on "Broken by Whispers," but if there is any mellowing on Mr. Wratten's part, it's hard to tell by the songs on the album.

The perfect background music for staring out the window on a rainy day, "Broken by Whispers" features steady yet understated guitar chords, prominent bass lines that give the songs a crispness, and the winsome vocals of Mr. Wratten, who sounds like the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant on some sort of sedative, which amazingly turns out to be a good thing.

While a couple of songs tend toward an electronic pulse, and there is a synth-pop feel that can be both good and bad, it is the simpler tunes that make "Broken by Whispers" shine.

"She Just Couldn't Stay" hums along nicely before breaking into a beautiful chorus, where Mr. Wratten bemoans that "The person you were/ I know you're not her/ She went away/ She went away." Stark and then stunning, the song would definitely stick with the listener if not for the fact that it is immediately surpassed by the following tune, "Sometimes I Still Feel the Bruise," a matter-of-fact song with a purity reminiscent of the Lightning Seeds or the Smiths at their gentle best. The song laments the girl who made an impression that won't go away, with Mr. Wratten singing "Why would you think of me/ When you were not the one in love?/ When you were not the dreamer/ When you were just the dream?"

Other standout cuts include the aptly named "Fragile," the bittersweet "I No Longer Know Anything" and the closing track, "Dark Eyes," which ends where the album began, with Mr. Wratten struggling to cope with the loss.

For many, listening to Trembling Blue Stars will feel dated, like hearing a college radio station in 1989. For others, Mr. Wratten's earnestness will come across as wimpy or pretentious. However, for those who enjoy wallowing in contemplative heartbreak, it won't get any better than "Broken by Whispers," a hidden gem for those who still haven't quite gotten over the one who got away.

• • •

Veteran songwriter Scott McGaughey has come up with an interesting way to work between his two bands, the Minus 5 and the Young Fresh Fellows, pairing them off on the same CD, the amusingly titled "The Young Fresh Fellows vs. The Minus 5." While the Minus 5 is more of a collaboration with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck than an actual band, the Young Fresh Fellows obtained a sort of cult pop status of their own, especially in the Pacific Northwest, with their witty, quirky songs. The Fellows open for the reunited Soft Boys at the 9:30 Club on Wednesday.

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