It’s impossible not to like an artist as plucky as Garrison Starr. After the petite Mississippi native garnered some attention with her polished, mainstream debut Eighteen over Me in 1997, landing a slot on the Lillith Fair tour, and subsequently falling victim to restructuring of her record label, she decided to go back to doing things her own way. Four years later, her superb album Songs from Take-Off to Landing was a vast improvement, as Starr went from bland Melissa Etheridge-style roots rock to smooth, relaxed country rock, laced with a sunny pop sound that reflected her new home of Los Angeles. Two tracks were produced by the “twangtrust” team of Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy, and Earle must have been impressed, as Starr was invited by Earle to open on his successful, extensive tour supporting his Jerusalem album in 2002 and 2003, even duetting with him during his set (Starr appears on Earle’s recent live album Just An American Boy).
Anytime a music veteran helps out a struggling artist so graciously, it has to yield positive results, and you can hear Garrison Starr’s confidence on her fine new album, Airstreams & Satellites, her first for Vanguard Records. It follows the same formula of Songs from Take-Off to Landing, but does everything just a little bit better. Airstreams & Satellites is more focused (the last album was a sprawling 55 minutes long), the production by Curt Schneider and Andrew Williams is simpler, incorporating more of a live band sound, and Starr herself is the strongest she’s sounded on record yet.
“Gasoline” opens the album with its languid tone, combining otherworldly slide guitar licks, a lightly funky bass line, and Starr’s rough-hewn guitar, not to mention her trademark drawl that resembles a younger Lucinda Williams, an enchanting voice that sounds as unassuming and effortless as the songs. The rest of the album reverts back to the more pop-tinged Americana sounds Starr specializes in, perfectly epitomized by the optimistic “Sing” (“So hard to live this life / I hope my faith can carry me / But today / I will sing”) and the pretty, acoustic “Hey Girl”, with its gorgeous electric guitar accents that swirl around the vocal melody. The lilting “Wonderful Thing” is good, simple singer-songwriter rock that, had it been recorded by an MTV-friendly moppet like Michelle Branch, would probably be a hit, while “One-Sided” rocks harder than any other track on the album. Most fascinating is a re-recorded version of “Superhero”, one of the better-known tracks from Eighteen over Me. Starr must have been influenced by Steve Earle’s ferocious backing band the Dukes, for this new, fiery, soaring, live-sounding performance by Starr and her band completely shatters the weak, overproduced original with its energy and passion.
Starr shows her more soft-spoken side on the gentle, folk rock strains of “Underneath the Wheel”, and on “Like A Drug”, where Starr offsets the done-a-million-times-before theme of love’s addictive qualities with some perceptive lyrics (“You can settle down / For the gossip going around / For the ones who betrayed you all along / Or you can prove ‘em wrong”). “Runner-Up” has Starr singing from the point of view of a jilted lover, singing bitterly, “Just when you get up your nerve / To take her at her word / Hidin’ out somewhere safe / She’ll set that hook inside your mouth / You just wait / ‘Cause she’s a fake”. Airstreams & Satellites concludes on a wistful note with the dreamy title track, as Starr gives her best vocal performance on the album. Also noteworthy is the untitled hidden track which follows, a sweet, moving song about a gay woman coming out to her mother (“What is wrong? / Can you be sure that God doesn’t live here anymore?”).
Even when she was with a bigger record label, Garrison Starr always seemed to be lurking under the radar of mainstream rock fans, and judging especially by her two most recent efforts, she deserves better. With her charming voice and her unmistakable songwriting talent, it’s about time more people caught on (Steve Earle seems to think so). The music doesn’t break down any barriers; in fact, it’s very formulaic at times, but it’s Starr’s passion that wins you over. If you’re into roots rock, if you like strong-minded female singer-songwriters, or if you just have a craving for quality music that hasn’t been overproduced and overhyped, then there’s no reason why you won’t like Airstreams & Satellites.