On album number ten, Jason Martin shows that he can play guitar and, y'know, rock. If only he had written some lyrics to go along with those tunes.
Jason Martin has clearly reached That Point in his career as Starflyer 59. He has 15 years, 10 albums, and a handful of EPs and compilations in the can. He has a well-established sound and fan base. He is officially a Veteran -- too old to be an up-and-comer, and too young to be considered a relic or dinosaur. What's a guy to do? Martin clearly isn't going to make a foray into deep house or African polyrhythm, thank God. Instead, he's decided to fool with his signature sound without totally compromising it, incorporating subtle shifts in tone and influences as he sees fit.
Thus, 2003's Old took a hard-rocking approach to Starflyer 59's moody, doomy, yet melodic post-shoegazer music. 2004's I Am the Portuguese Blues took some unrecorded seven-year old songs and gave them the garage treatment. Those two albums were hardly revolutions in Martin's sound, but they did give fans of his more textured, carefully-orchestrated '90s work some pause. Then, for 2005's Talking Voice Vs. Singing Voice, Martin reverted to the more glossy, atmospheric sound he made his name with. Now, My Island finds him rocking out again, this time with more melody and less heavy metal than Old. That the album combines approaches and tweaks that Martin has tried on previous albums and turns out a cohesive, highly-listenable set of 10 tunes is its own kind of forward step for a Veteran like Martin.
My Island hits you -- really hits you. From the opening slap and whip-cracks of "The Frontman", the rhythm section is loud and the guitars are crystal clear. For this album, Martin has again assembled a traditional guitar/bass/drums band, and they pack more of a wallop than SF59 ever has. With most songs clocking in around three minutes and not a lot of fuss going on behind the boards (Martin produced), My Island could easily be called the most efficient, streamlined Starflyer 59 album yet.
Musically, Martin seems to be taking less influence from '80s mope-rock, synth-pop, and shoegaze, and more from post-punk. Primary points of reference here are the Psychedelic Furs (the angular, incisive title track), Echo & the Bunnymen (the swelling, majestic "Ideas for the Talented"), and Joy Division (the hard-charging "The Lifeguard", most of the rest). But there's also an interesting twist: As on Old, Martin references the '70s as well. Before sweeping into an airy, Joe Pernice-like chorus, "I Win" sounds like a more jaunty version of "Don't Fear the Reaper". The double-time glam stomp of highlight "Mic the Mic" is unmistakable, and the title of "It's All Right Blondie" alludes to the song's steady, half-disco gait and quirky synthesizer -- ie Blondie. Martin is still Martin, so touches like lead guitars following the vocal melody and keyboard flourishes are still in place. The only real bone for fans of the "classic" Starflyer 59 sound, however, is the downbeat "Division", which features the familiar layers of guitars and one of those choruses that sounds like Martin's slipping into a deep, dark pit.
My Island is shaping up to be a major entry in Martin's catalog; or, more importantly, a touchstone of the latter portion of his career. But there's one major stumbling block -- his lyrics. Martin's voice, a breathy, half-whispered version of Grant Lee Phillips' deep-throated emoting, has always been a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. His words have always been abstract and leaning toward the obtuse, but on most of these new songs you have no idea what he's singing about -- and you don't care to. Where previously he could come up with ear-catching thoughts such as "All the things I 'd be / With time to kill and just had lots of money", now he's stuck with lines like "This is gonna be the night / I think it's just another night". Or this, from the chorus of "Mic the Mic":
I missed it and got rattled
So is your reception what you'd [indecipherable]
The distance when you travel
Count on me to set it right
It makes no sense; it's not interesting; and it does a disservice to the strong musical backing.
When Martin does offer a lucid glimpse into his psyche, he's dealing with the doubts, fears, and messed up expectations of this world -- familiar themes all. He does unveil some wit on "I Win", wondering
Should I travel
And maybe get the starring part
And a monogram that says
What am I supposed to say?
My talent's an acquired taste
Actually, Martin's talent is pretty easy to swallow, and, musically, My Island is one of his most accessible efforts yet. Before he makes it to album number 11, though, he's going to have to decide whether he still has something to say.