Starflyer 59 make shoe-tapping, dreamy, anxious, melancholy, playful, quirky, wistful pop/rock, and if that sounds like a peculiar combination, now you're getting the picture.
Leave Here a Stranger opens with the reflective "All My Friends Who Play Guitar" and follows it with the acerbic "Can You Play Drums?". By the time the cheerful (please note: irony) "When I Learn to Sing" floats in, you will notice that the first three songs all have to do with playing and singing. Good catch. This is an album played and sung about playing and singing. Songwriters writing about writing is often a very bad sign that they have nothing to say (cough, Martin Gore, cough). But Starflyer 59 manage to get away with it on this album partly because the lyrics are so minimalist, but mostly because of the powerful simplicity of the music. For me the two brightest spaces on the album are filled by the theatrical "Things Like This Help Me" and "Night Music" which is about failure (do I detect a theme?) yet is one of the most successful at showcasing the band. Here's something bizarre. Though guitar is the chief instrument for Starflyer 59's songs, I realized in reading the press release and checking the CD booklet that neither credits a guitarist, merely a singer/songwriter (Jason Martin), bass player (Jeff Cloud), drummer (Joey Esquibel) and keyboard player (Josh Dulli). An unofficial fan site lists Martin as also being the guitarist, though. So unless I hear back on the query sent to the band's official email before I send this review, I'm going to assume that Martin is in fact the guitarist here. Whoever he/she/it is, they're pretty smooth.
The album, the band's sixth according to the marvelously pretentious press release (It begins with a two paragraph recounting of the Archimedes legend, I am not making this stuff up) was recorded in mono, "in loving honor of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds." The experiment/homage succeeds, with only the final track, "Your Company", coming off as too cluttered for the non-stereo picture. Of the other tracks, the backwards-vocal, drum and keyboard instrumental "Moves On," which is itself a coda to the song before it, is notable.
This is not, perhaps, the most unusual album I've ever heard but there's something special in its lack of specialness. It doesn't sparkle, it doesn't shine, but it sure would have sounded good coming out of the radio 10, 15 years ago. And I think Martin knows it. Another thing this album seems to be about is a feeling that time has passed you by. Funny thing is, not only bands can relate to that, which makes this album not irrelevant after all.