- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 3, 2001

British band Trembling Blue Stars returns to the Metro Cafe tomorrow as part of its first proper tour of America, and the intimate venue once again should serve as a perfect stage for songwriter Bob Wratten's painfully personal pop gems. The band played a memorable opening set for the Ocean Blue at the Metro back in March in only its second gig ever in the States.
"Alive to Every Smile," released Oct. 23, is the fourth album for Trembling Blue Stars and furthers the band's reputation for gloomy, brutally honest yet stunningly well-crafted melodic pop music. The band's first two albums, 1996's "Her Handwriting" and 1998's "Lips That Taste of Tears," evocatively chronicled Mr. Wratten's breakup with ex-girlfriend Annemari Davis, a former member of his previous band, indie pop cult favorites the Field Mice, and a longtime musical collaborator.
Last year's release of "Broken by Whispers" found Mr. Wratten trying to move away from that subject and look toward the future, a move that continues on "Alive to Every Smile."
What does remain a constant is the blend of gentle guitar strummings, occasional ethereal electronic flavorings, harmony backup vocals and perfect pop phrasings that make every Trembling Blue Stars album such a pleasant listen.
In a phone interview, Mr. Wratten agrees that "in a way, there's a kind of conscious effort to try and move away from well, those first two records are quite obviously fixated on a certain thing. And so, come the third record, I was thinking, 'It's time to try and write other stuff.' But you don't want it to be contrived. For instance, on the last album, if I had an idea for a song and it happened to be about Annemari, I wouldn't not write the song. The criteria had to be, was it a good song or not?"
Mr. Wratten is very upfront about how intensely personal his songs can be, but insists he does not want them to be taken as autobiography. Why then are his songs so, umm, specific? "I think you communicate more with people the more personal you get," Mr. Wratten says. "If you just go for the lowest common denominator, try to write 'this will appeal to everyone' kind of songs, people will think that it's fake. But if you actually put real details in, people will connect with that right away."
"Broken by Whispers" opened with Mr. Wratten singing, "I want to write songs about, two strangers starting out" and, indeed, that album, especially the achingly longing single "Dark Eyes" focused on potential new love. With "Alive to Every Smile," the potential seems to have been missed and love never given a chance to blossom or fail. Standout songs such as "St. Paul's Cathedral at Night," "Maybe After All" and the oh-so-catchy "Ghost of an Unkissed Kiss" all refer to a future that will never come to pass.
Mr. Wratten captures the mood of the album perfectly in "Ghost," when he sings, "We found what so many seek / But it was never ours to keep / It will always be perfect, but we didn't get to live it."
Mr. Wratten, whose friendly and affable phone demeanor belies the bleakness of his lyrics, acknowledges that the new tunes are as gloomy as his breakup songs. "Eventually everything will work out. I'm convinced of it," he says. "But, yeah, I did really stumble from one moment to another."
Such anguish, he feels, is the inevitable result of a highly personal approach to songwriting. "There's a lot more to say about love gone wrong or the sadder aspects of it. It's really hard to write a happy song, but I will try."

WHAT: Trembling Blue Stars
WHERE: Metro Cafe, 1522 14th St. NW
WHEN: 10 p.m. tomorrow
PHONE: 202/518-7900

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