It’s been a while since I’ve dug this one.
(Tooth & Nail, 1993)
I really had a different idea for how this was going to go. I’d hoped to go back to the beginning for Starflyer 59, give their first album a spin or two, reminisce at how nice it was when I first discovered it, and recount how I subsequently forgot about it once they started releasing newer material. You know, kind of the cursory “thanks for the memories” thing and move on. I’d never spent a ton of time with Silver (actually the first of two self-titled albums, but, like Weezer’s Blue Album, it was referred to by the color to those in the know), having discovered its follow-ups She’s the Queen EP and Gold at the same time and preferring them over the band’s debut. So it was to my happy surprise that I’ve really enjoyed the past couple of days I’ve spent with this album – it’s aged better than I would have anticipated.
Perhaps that’s due to the nature of it – it’s quite a hazy slab of UK-via-California shoegaze, an inward-focused sound that weathers trends better than less insular genres. It also benefits from reminding you of a lot of things, but not really sounding like any of them. Here you’ve got the thick guitar swirls and whispered vocals of My Bloody Valentine, there the deliberate de-tuned riffs (although slowed to a crawl) of, dare I say, Smashing Pumpkins or Deftones. (And truth be told – I like both those bands.) And, owing to the penchant of all bands mentioned to have one eye on the 1980s (and in MBV’s case to have existed mostly in that decade), syrupy delay effects and flanger crop up frequently, almost omnipresently in some cases. It all adds up to nice stylistic shifts between crunchy drone and sleek pop, a nice, dreamy combination.
Despite the influences, Starflyer really does have its own sound. Jason Martin, songwriter, singer, guitarist, sometime drummer, and only constant member over the band’s 20(!)-year existence croons in a hushed baritone, a hypnotically welcoming instrument that has aged gracefully over the years. Here, on Silver, it hits some snags, but that’s OK – he’s completely carried off to safety by the swirling and wobbling layers of guitar. And oh, that guitar. Thick and bold at one minute, gauzy and ethereal the next, it exists absolutely effortlessly in whatever iteration Martin decides, whether it’s the low riffage of default Starflyer theme song “Blue Collar Love” or the honeyed sustained sevenths and ninths of the exquisite “Monterey.” I just want to curl up in a blanket on a hilltop on a cool spring evening and watch the earth’s rotation in stellar time-lapse photography – if only that were possible in real time!
Then there are the zero-G pop tunes “Sled,” which leaves chemtrails as it shoots across the sky, and “Hazel Would,” both breezy and thick at the same time, giving dream pop bands like Galaxie 500 and Lush runs for their money. “Droned” warbles with gooey excess, smearing itself down your speakers. “The Zenith” suffers a bit from herky-jerky construction (despite the bursting and blooming Mercury Rev–esque opening) but makes up for it with a wonderful extended outro that lasts over half of its five-and-a-half-minute runtime, constructed with a simple yet sinfully inspired tremoloed guitar run under which wordless vocals sigh. I want that to soundtrack my life, constantly. That said, it sounds like the ideas for three songs smooshed into one.
Sadly, “2nd Space Song” doesn’t redeem itself as well as “The Zenith,” despite similar problems. And while it’s virtually impossible to make out what Martin sings at any given time, the lyric “Jesus in your hands” stands out. This is significant in that it’s the only mention of Martin’s Christianity here, and in that it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever – it feels shoehorned in to have some religious reference. Perhaps it was a contractual obligation with Tooth & Nail, the unabashedly Christian alternative to the alternative, as it were. (It’s now a haven for much crappier music, even though Starflyer still calls it home.) Why is this important? I have a long history of disliking Christian music, even though Martin and I both were raised in similar Christian homes and were sequestered from much of popular culture. (I snuck it, don’t worry.) It just feels disingenuous in the popular music landscape. And while that’s a rant for another time, it’s both a) refreshing that this is the only reference I can find of it here, and b) disappointing that it’s here at all. It’s a reason detractors get down on Starflyer as a band not quite as serious as Swervedriver, or Pale Saints, or Galaxie 500. And that’s a shame, because Martin and his rotating cast are focused on working as hard as possible on making the best music as possible. (Martin even recorded Gold essentially by himself, driving himself crazy – well, not literally, but it was a slog if you read the liners of best-of Easy Come, Easy Go – in the process.)
And yet, because of that Christian influence, I was able to claim Starflyer 59 as one of my favorites and not feel bad about it, and in fact champion my fandom to others who, in 1994, had yet to hear of them. I could point to the fact that the band wore black T-shirts, rode motorcycles, had sideburns – they were so cool, and I wanted to be just as cool. They sounded like nothing else I was into at the time, and opened up new avenues of musical discovery as I traced their roots back to the bands by which they were influenced. I was a music junkie listening to music made by music junkies – I think that sort of relationship worked out for the best, don’t you?
While I continue to champion Americana and Gold, and to a lesser extent Talking Voice Vs. Singing Voice and Everybody Makes Mistakes, two of the later albums I delved into with more than a passing fascination (not that their other later albums are bad or anything, there are just so many), I’ve got to be reminded periodically that Silver, the starting point, is just as worthwhile a listen. It is important to go back here and reminisce about where it all came from. There really are some killer tunes on here, if I may borrow an attitude befitting Martin’s SoCal upbringing.
RIYL: My Bloody Valentine, New Order, Galaxie 500