Σtella: Up and Away Album Review

With galloping guitars, off-kilter electronics, and quirky, imagistic lyrics, Stella Chronopoulou cemented her place as one of the most popular young artists in her native Greece. Since debuting in 2015, Chronopoulou, who records as Σtella, has paired her melismatic contralto with dream-pop synths to tell quotidian yet alluring stories that only needed small details like beer, wine, and a strong come-on to paint a complete picture. For the most part, she rooted her sound in 21st-century pop, but throughout her catalog, you could occasionally identify a dash of traditional European music, as on 2017’s “Works for You,” with its flourishes of mandolin and synth-flute.

On Up and Away, Chronopoulou’s first album for Sub Pop, those traditional European sounds move to the forefront. Produced by Tom Calvert, aka Redinho, the music abounds with fingerpicked nylon-string guitar lines inspired by Grigoris Bithikotsis and Tzeni Vanou, two of Chronopoulou’s favorite ’60s and ’70s Greek-pop musicians. You can also hear the influence of the globetrotting Houston band Khruangbin, whom Chronopoulou and Calvert bonded over in the studio. Like that band, whose once-adventurous music has gradually settled into duller textures, the experiment is not always successful, and her combination of desert blues, psychedelia, and Greek pop erases the idiosyncrasies of Σtella’s best songs, recording as little more than background music .

Chronopoulou and Calvert’s incorporation of new sounds blunts the sharpness that made her previous work so enticing. Sure, the smoky, reverbed drums on “Nomad” are pleasant, but the song is only pleasant—nothing about it lingers. The hourglass-slow guitar line and Chronopoulou’s sleepy vocals make the song sound like she and Calvert poured its raw materials into the precise mold of a “vibes” playlist. “Who Cares” is a direct homage to Chronopoulou’s Greek-pop inspirations, but the percussion and bass, along with Chronopoulou’s vocals, are so gauzy you’re more likely to tune out than tune in. The problem isn’t that Chronopoulou’s music can’t work outside modern pop fare: The invigorating title track from her 2020 apex The Break deftly fused a driving disco beat with playfully serrating strings that evoked highlights from MIA’s Kala. Lacking the vision to distinguish the music from its influences, Σtella’s most explicit forays into Greek music often land as her most directionless work yet.

It doesn’t help that Chronopoulou’s voice, which can purr with subtle vibrato or scrape the skies, is buried far deeper in the mix. On 2015’s “Wait on Me,” her vocal control and clarity could make the most bizarre lyrics—including, of all things, “shaking my ass like a chipmunk”—sound earnest and endearing. On Up and Away, her voice, when it’s audible at all, is doused in effects that mask her quirks and blend her voice into the instrumentation. The percussion and jazz guitar of “Black and White” often blur her lyrics, and when she does break through the murk, she sings flat, nondescript lines such as “Ooh, I don’t understand you” and “You changed your mind/ But I don’t care no more.”

The best moments on Up and Away reinforce what’s missing in the worst ones. The title track is an energizing, synth-driven gem, a rare instance of Chronopoulou folding her influences into a sound that feels her own, with handclaps adding a dance-like rush during the chorus. “Another Nation” returns strange yet charming lyrics to the Σtella formula (“Run like a pink flamingo/You’re familiar with some prison lingo”), and it’s built on the record’s catchiest guitar line. Toward the end of the second verse, Chronopoulou reaches the highest, most exciting parts of her record: She sounds like she’s ready to leap off the page and revisit The Break‘s most headphone-filling vocal performances, but she never quite gets there. Instead, she lets out some sluggish oohs and aahs, and then, the song is over.

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