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Music Reviews

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Starflyer 59
Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice
Tooth & Nail Records

Rating: 8/10 ?

April 25, 2005
I had an entire three paragraphs worth of introduction prepared in my head, in which I would discuss just how Starflyer 59's Jason Martin developed into a pop god with his own medium-sized cult after his humble beginnings as America's nervous, unsure answer to the Jesus And Mary Chain. At least one of the paragraphs would be devoted to examining why this band, universally acknowledged as one of indie rock's most underrated acts, has never been able to break through commercially, and if this album had what it takes to do so.

By mentioning that I thought about these questions, of course, I bring them up without actually bringing them up (and I'll go ahead and call myself a sneaky bastard for doing so), so in a sense I didn't edit myself as much as I'd like to think I did. This portion of the discussion ends right here, however, and for good reason - Martin's music has not been allowed to speak for itself for far too long. Perhaps the fact that a number of his followers found out about his music during their youth group days could explain the almost frightening level of zeal with which the Starflyer gospel is often spread; in any event, no one ever just discusses the music - it's always the music plus faith, or the music plus its background, or the music plus the fact that far too many people haven't heard it (and here I am rambling about the music plus the dialogue that usually accompanies the music).

So yeah, this Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice business - it's good stuff, and a worthy addition to any pop music connoisseur's CD collection - but by now, that's come to be expected from Martin. When a man is nine albums into his career with a couple of certifiably great releases and no outright misfires, there's no reason not to expect that he'll be able to return to his formula to produce yet another strong set of songs every couple of years. By the same token, Martin's reached a point where any of his releases could very easily be written off as "just another Starflyer album." He does his best here to cut away any and all potential grounds for such a notion, and emerges successful, though some of his deviations are questionable.

The album's most memorable tunes take the Frank Lenz-inspired ridiculousness of Old a step farther. "Good Sons" opens with one of Martin's trademark night driving-appropriate melodic guitar hooks, and its ballsy bass line smacks of Old's tongue-in-cheek classic rock seediness. It's the song's explosive chorus, though, that's completely alien to the band's oeuvre. Click-clack old school drum machines pound away, synths whiz, Martin sings more confidently than he ever has in his entire life, and I'll just come out and say it: it's a New Order song. Never saw that one coming.

Disc rounder-outer "The Longest Line" also reminds us that sometimes the most abominable drum machine settings can be the most awesome, but it does so in more of a billowing, Soft Bulletin way, balancing 70s AM ballast with gliding guitar pop grace and making it one of Martin's most textured, multi-faceted, and mature songs. Lyrically, it conveys the same disarming mixture of joy and weariness that Martin's steeped his songs in since Leave Here a Stranger; this time, however, he's become even more urgent and plain-spoken, sending out a direct plea for Jesus to call him home. After years of seeing Martin's undeniable cool being chipped away on the musical front, it seems as if he may be letting his guard down lyrically as well, for better or worse.

The album's more problematic songs face the same issue as the lyrics: has Martin gone from stoic restraint to actually laying too much out on the table? From day one, Martin has embellished his songs more and more with each successive album, but it seems as though it may have been a bad idea on some of these tracks. Practically every song receives full ornamentation - at least three layers of guitar, synths, perhaps an organ, a second piece of percussion, handclaps and a whole fucking lot of strings.

Ken Andrews' gummy engineering contributes to the problem - there's not enough delineation between individual sounds - but the strings and handclaps really push a few songs over the limit, leaving an eyes-bigger-than-the-stomach queasiness. By popping up around every bend, these embellishments lose their flavor as well as their ability to effectively accent. It's almost as though the band fears that we won't latch on to each hook without a bevy of cues, and it can begin to feel a tad demeaning after nine songs of such behavior.

This type of thing is a normal new album gripe for me, though, and if I've learned anything, it's that minor issues of instrumentation and nuance take months to work themselves out with a listener. Sometimes small tics grow more obvious with time and completely ruin an album, but other times they become easier and easier to ignore, or possibly even begin to sound enjoyable in their own context.

My immediate, gut reaction to this album is one of great pleasure; so for now, I'm sticking by that - and besides, I can't say that I'd take this record any other way than it already is. Jason Martin could easily plug away with the same tricks that have proven successful in the past, but instead, he chooses to let us watch him hammer out his issues of confidence and sincerity and give us box seats for his continual courting of his elusive pop muse.

Reviewed by Phillip Buchan
A one-time music director at WUOG in Athens, Phillip is into college radio, literature, writing, buying records, going to shows, talking to friends, learning -- pretty much the same stuff that all of us priveledged, (pseudo?)intellectual Americans are into.

See other reviews by Phillip Buchan



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