The Phantom Tollbooth
 February 1999 Pick of the Month

International Anthems for the Human Race
Artist: All Star United
Label: Essential Records
Length: 14 songs / 50:18
 
A cursory listen to All Star United's sophomore release could leave some listeners worried about the band's grasp of humility--especially since in the second track they proclaim themselves "the greatest band in the world." But that listener would merely be unfamiliar with Ian Eskelin and company's brand of satire. Mixing two fairly equal doses of entertainment and commentary, this is a strong progression following their debut.
 
Some say that there is nothing new under the rock'n'roll sun, and musically this album doesn't do a huge amount to battle that notion. While there may not be anything particularly new in the music, All Star United are entertainers of the highest caliber. Consequently, their very British pop music has a breezy appeal that is difficult to resist. The strong Oasis and Brit-pop overtones have been moderately reduced this time around, and replaced with a chunkier guitar-pop sound. The band also slow things slightly on several songs and include a few hidden extras, including a speeded-up version of the title song, which is something else entirely, sounding rather space-aged.
 
Another danger for bands with such a breezy sound is that when they slow things down they often sound drawn out. A couple of tracks do verge in this direction, such as "Thank You, Goodnight," but the standout track for me is another of the mellower ones included, "If We Were Lovers." This easy, laid back song takes a little surf influence and a pinch of the late 80's to give a lazy-day at the beach feel which drives the song along nicely.
 
The lyrics are again a mixture of obviously God-praising verses and a few sideways glances at culture, both Christian-oriented or otherwise. "Popular Americans" is a prime example of the latter:

The main danger for any band taking this approach is that of becoming self-righteous, but All Star United aren't above a bit of self-mocking, giving the impression that they recognize themselves in many of the things they comment on.
 
I was recently in a pub in London where All Star United once played. Alongside a variety of rock'n'roll memorabilia (U2 played in this pub many years ago) was an All Star United poster. Testament perhaps to the fact that as entertainers All Star United is a strong outfit. This album goes a fair way to backing that up.
 
By James Stewart (1/23/1999)

 In the spirit of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it, just tweak it a bit," All Star United have recently released their second album, which largely resembles and expands on their signature sound from their self-titled debut. The budget for International Anthems for the Human Race was considerably larger than for their first, resulting in a bigger, bolder, and more brash All Star United presentation. In fact, so much so that you can imagine producer, engineer, and mixer Neill King mirthfully cranking the Big, Bold, and Brash buttons all the way to a Spinal Tap Eleven, resulting in an audio roller coaster with more thrills than chills. Maybe a bit too many thrills, at the expense of variety.
 
The majority of these songs are whipped together in a dense arrangement where virtually every featured instrument bubbles along at the top of the mix. All the time. Consequently, the album is sustained at a high plateau, with few valleys in between for a refreshing break from the dizzying effects of the upbeat material. "I Need You Now" is a stand-out cut on this album precisely because it offers more variety in tone and energy than the rest of the cuts. Having said that, this whirlwind of an album has plenty of sonic variety within and between tracks in terms of style and effects, just delivered at a consistently optimistic and frenzied pace. Nevertheless, All Star United have created a truly plucky power-pop effort with plenty of British panache, ranging in mostly Brit-pop styles influenced all the way from Abba, through Elton John, onto Squeeze and Tears for Fears, and even to Stevie Wonder. On one of the hidden tracks and album highlights, "Hurricane Baby," the band does their best Brian Setzer imitation on a song that could have been ripped from the greater Stray Cat catalogue. A few other tracks, like "Theme From Summer," feature Beach Boys-type harmonies, and some of the album's keyboard bits are reminiscent of the Theramin (a goofy instrument seemingly plucked from a sci-fi B-movie) first made famous in "Good Vibrations." For the most part, however, the band stays on course in a singular sound somewhere between the Beatlesque pop of PFR and the modern day grooves of Oasis, with a cheerfully schmaltzy quality that only a true power pop phenomenon can successfully muster.
 
Main song-writer and vocalist Ian Eskelin has been releasing albums for a little while now, and this is among his best. Curiously, his vocals are remarkably effective given the unremarkable nature of his voice. Making up for his lack of range and distinctive style, Eskelin sings perfectly in keeping with each song's particular pop style, and sounds fine doing so. This ability to sing well despite his vocal limitations further illuminates that his real talents are as a pop songwriter and performer. And quite a talent he is, weaving cleverly worded messages of cultural and spiritual relevance into accessible, sing-along-able ditties. Given all this energetic, well-played pop, there is no reason whatsoever why this band can't reach the status of British Isles Christian Super Group, becoming the sort of sensation that dc Talk has become stateside, or better. Screaming, adoring fans everywhere will be treated to something both of musical and lyrical quality as well as unabashed, unadulterated fun.
 
By Steven Stuart Baldwin (2/17/99)
 

 

Anyone familiar with the so-called Brit-Pop scene of a few years ago will have spotted the influences in All Star United's eponymous debut album. Worn proudly alongside their more traditional US rock heritage were flavours of (most noticeably) Blur and Supergrass.  A couple of years later, their second album retains those influences and adds a few more-chiefly Oasis, The Cardigans (is Swede-Pop going to be next wave?), and Stray Cats.  Yes, I did say Stray Cats.  This increasing diversity makes for a more musically interesting album.  The lyrics are as barbed as ever, pointing the finger at Christians's hypocrisy as well as at American culture and the world in general.  If you absorb the lyrics, there's a lot in there to make you feel uncomfortable with yourself, as well as some things to inspire you to do something about it.  And this is on top of some distinctly breezy good-time music.  So this album (like the last) can be taken on at least two levels, which can't be bad can it?

Highspots in the album are many (for as many different reasons):
  "Popular Americans" for its Blues Brothers pastiche introduction;
  "International Anthem" for its false ending and sing-along chorus;
  "If We Were Lovers" just because it's gorgeous;
  "I Need You Now" for the sonar guitar and for being honest and serious;
  "Superstar" for name-checking Pinky Tuscadero and a Mud single ("Tiger Feet").

There are three (count 'em!) bonus tracks, too: two versions of a song possibly called "Hurricane Baby"--one in cabaret style (like the "You Don't Need Vitamins" bonus on the first album) and the other in Stray Cats's rock-a-billy style; and a song called "International Anthem for the Human Race," which is sped up to resemble the chipmunks on helium.

Best lyrics on the album must surely belong to "If We Were Lovers," which exhorts Christians to love as we were meant to, and they make this reviewer at least painfully aware of how far short of that ideal he falls:
 

In all, International Anthems is a worthy successor to All Star United's debut.  So much for the "difficult second album" syndrome.

Daren Allder (3/1/99)

I borrowed this album planning on giving some balance to these reviews. I had the first album. I've heard them in concert . Nothing great! Three reviews with fours tocks--give me a break. By the second song, I was re-thinking my viewpoint. By the end of the album, I had to agree with them. Sure it's pure pop fun with light, breezy lyrics but they also give you something to think about.

Shari Lloyd (3/21/99)