Crate-Digging: Starflyer 59 – Americana

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Tooth & Nail, 1997)

I’ve got a fairly large femur to pick with Christian music in general. My question: why should I spend my hard-earned time and money on a record of glorified praise music? Where’s the fun in that? Don’t I get enough of that at church? The majority of musicians come across as hollow, crowd-pandering, and uber-reverent, eyes closed in religious ecstasy. Sure, hearts are in the right places I guess, but everybody plays it too safe, everything comes across as manufactured. And the lyrics, my gosh, the lyrics – ick. The intimate “loves” and “yous” spread throughout paint the picture of Christ as lover, and it’s frankly stomach-turning. I mean, pop artists often eschew such overt saccharine hogwash in favor of at least the attempt of sounding poetic, and possibly even original. But place that adult-contempo modern Christian garbage in a family setting, where everybody’s dressed nice, Mom and Dad blandly and chastely love each other and Bro and Sis get along all the time, and you’ve got the creepiest picture of brainwashing ever. So please, somebody show me an experimental Christian noise band or something – I bet it’s hard to find one, no lyrics there to emote – and maybe I’ll start to believe there’s more out there than just Christian drivel.

But wait, maybe there is! You may be wondering why I’ve gone off on the music of whitebread Christian America, and that’s because Starflyer 59 is in fact unapologetically Christian – and here’s the key part – in practice. What makes them palatable is that their lyrics evoke real human emotion, with the only mention of God a brief word in the liner notes. Jason Martin, Starflyer’s singer, songwriter, guitarist, and only constant member, understands that compelling music needs to be universal, and the fact that he cloaks his lyrics in generalizations of personal relationships and encounters with others only broadens his appeal. And he’s not even that great a lyricist, although he continues to grow (Americana is Starflyer’s third album – their twelfth [!] will be released shortly). But that’s OK. What makes Starflyer 59 an actual great band, and Americana a great album (possibly my favorite Starflyer album), is the music.

See, Jason Martin knows his music history and is influenced by it. He’s Californian through and through, and though there’s a lot of sad-sackery present in the Starflyer catalog, there’s quite a bit of sunshine that peeks through. And a bit of bluster – Martin has a record collection steeped in ethereal British dream pop and shoegaze, and you can readily peg his sound to that style. He alternates between My Bloody Valentine soundscapes saturated with Crazy Horse guitar (“The Voyager,” “The Translator”) and gauzy Lush texture (“Harmony”). He utilizes quite a few seventh and ninth chords, and as such some of the songs come off as slow dance numbers from a prefab 1950s suburban West Coast high school (“You Think You’re Radical,” “Help Me When You’re Gone”) or “the city of tomorrow – today!”-style retro-futurisitc doo wop (“The Heartaker”). And his voice is – perhaps to overuse the word – dreamy. Martin’s low baritone is a mild croon, pleasant and inviting, and his upper registers are floaty and smooth. You could easily compare him to Courtney Taylor of The Dandy Warhols in that regard, although Martin isn’t prone to stoned country meanderings or wacky psych romps.

And what I love about Americana and Starflyer 59 in general is that they’re perfect soundtracks for romantic breakups, some of the most emotional times in any of our lives. It may sound masochistic of me, but I almost welcomed the hurt of a breakup in high school or college, only because I knew I could turn to records such as Americana for solace, and because of my emotional state, I was able to connect at a much deeper level than when everything was OK. So beyond the fact that the music is decidedly downward-gazing, the Big Idea college poetry (which is not a slight in this instance, although I usually mean it as one) presented here is universal enough to strike sustained chords that serve to resonate personal truth. Take for example “You Think You’re Radical” in its entirety: “You think you’re radical. / You think you’re terrible. / I don’t mind, / leave me on my own tonight.” Obviously an up-and-down relationship is coming to an end here, and the fact that the narrator doesn’t “mind” and is willing to be left on his own speaks to two things: he’s ready for this to happen, and he’s probably got something in store to get him through it – for me (and probably Jason Martin), a bottle of liquor and a helluva record collection usually will do the trick. See also the titular chorus of “Help Me When You’re Gone” and “Everyone But Me’s” “Please say what you mean. / Got time for everyone but me.” Great breakup stuff.

Jason Martin’s music is still quite fresh – fortunately he’s continuing to make records, and there’s usually not a bad one among them (although the haters are out there). But even if he doesn’t continue to make quality music, it will still be easy to look at his discography with favor. I’m there – it’s hard not to love layered sonic blasts like “The Voyager,” “The Heartaker,” and “The Boulevard” (this latter song possibly my favorite on the album and a staple of my college radio show); dreamy pop tunes like “Harmony” and “Everyone But Me”; and the slow, contemplative numbers like “You Think You’re Radical” and “Help Me When You’re Gone.” It’s a great mix of style and structure, and Martin certainly sequenced the record perfectly. (And thank God for no overwrought bombastic Message in the lyrics!) It’s a hard record not to fall in love with.

RIYL: The Lassie Foundation, The Dandy Warhols, Neil Young + Crazy Horse, My Bloody Valentine, Lush

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