Before the Q magazine awards, a rally of sold out headlining tours, and industry buzz that promised the next Coldplay or Travis, Starsailor was simply the 1970 release from the late Tim Buckley, renowned folk singer and father of fated singer/songwriter, Jeff Buckley. On that album, Tim lost more fans than he made; while heralded by some critics as a brave tour de force, its jazzy experimentation and kooky imagery scared off even the most committed devotees.
The 2001 Starsailor, comprised of singer/guitarist James Walsh, bassist James Stelfox, drummer Ben Byrne, and keyboardist Barry Westhead, has already been guaranteed a run that will never know such obscurity. Their much applauded debut, Love Is Here has already produced three rocketing UK singles. They’re soon launching a month-long headlining US tour, despite the fact that their album doesn’t release in the States until early 2002. They’re even appearing on Conan O’Brien—a telltale sign that they’re being groomed as The Next Big Thing.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In recent history, especially since Oasis made it big in the States, hungry music execs have been vying aggressively to sell UK bands to the huge and profitable US market. When Travis came along with The Man Who in 1999, they surely broke the mold for good, proving that America would, indeed, be willing to take their Brits in a non-drunken, non-asshole format. But beyond the fact that Travis confirmed that British bands could indeed be made up of nice guys, they also paved the way for the host of post-Britpop groups that have been springing up ever since, who these days seem to be getting signed faster than you can say “multimillions”.
Having officially become a part of this influx, newbies Starsailor are destined be cast off by some as Just Another Group of British Lads. They’re also certain to weather a host of comparisons because, hell, comparisons pay. After all, they’re just rock enough to play into the American neo-alternative thing embodied in groups like Five for Fighting and Train; just quietcore enough to attract Coldplay and Turin Brakes fans; just emo enough to sway the crowds who dig Promise Ring or Built to Spill; just edgy-Brit enough to pique the curiosity of Radiohead and Suede listeners. Hell, James Walsh even kind of sounds like Brett Anderson (Suede)—but he also sounds like you-name-it, from James Dean Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers) to Neil Young to Jeff and/or Tim Buckley.
But Starsailor are more—much more—than the composite of convenient musical references. On Love Is Here they are lush and riveting; they are reserved and reflective; they are sincere forthcoming. Most importantly, they are the source of an album that, like a canyon, is a layer after layer of rich color and stone strength, plunging toward unfathomable depth.
The album is an even mix of languid, reeling ballads and seductive mid-tempo tunes; first in line is the haunting “Tie Up My Hands”. After a folk-inspired tapestry of acoustic guitar and bass playing that lasts close to a minute, singer James Walsh intones his simple commands: “Wipe the make-up from your face / Tie your hair and gently fall from grace / Until I come again”. The strumming continues unremittingly until the rhythm breaks for a straight-ahead, declarative chorus: “I wanna love you but my hands are tied / I wanna stay here but I’ve been denied / Let’s watch the clock until the morning sun does rise”. The passion of the frustrated narrator build across the next verse and into subsequent chorus, where drums change the timbre and the impassioned singer becomes almost manic. The song closes at high-intensity, the drums barreling through the frenzy of, the voice fading back and becoming an emotional wail.
And if there’s anything that Starsailor have perfected, it’s emotional authenticity. The album’s theme, which revolves around the lessons learns before or while falling in love, could seem phony but instead listens like they’re a band full of boys who are simultaneously being dumped and riding on a new relationship high. The ballads that follow “Tie Up My Hands” feed off its poignancy and, in fact, top it. Included in this is “Way to Fall”, an aural pearl that’s nothing short of magnificent. Beyond the breathtaking musicianship that expertly builds sorrow, brick by brick, until it must collapse, the lyrics showcase the pure poetry of Walsh’s lyricism. Case in point: “I’ve got something in my throat / I need to be alone / While I suffer”. Or from equally somber “She Just Wept”: “She just wept / Like I could not ignore / How can I act / When my heart’s on the floor?” A better question might be, how can you not feel completely raw after nearly an hour of lyrics like that?
And then there’s the faster numbers—thick, sometimes saucy, and a welcome shift from an otherwise emotionally exhausting album. Two for good measure: the soulful “Fever”, which shows off their ability for get-down verses followed by big, ballsy choruses; and “Talk Her Down”, a rollicking number that’s packed with choral backing vocals, guitar and bass jams, and cooler-than piano. And, while I’m at it, let’s hear it for “Good Souls”, a cleansing number of broad musical strokes that, like Walsh sings, sets out to “make life better.”
Sure, Starsailor may be part of bloated hype-fest, but it’s important to remember that sometimes things get hyped because they deserve it. And like its 1970s namesake, it’s sure to be a benchmark in these performers’ career—though not for repelling a fan base, but instead for building it.
// Notes from the Road
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