Starflyer 59: Old

Starflyer 59
Tooth and Nail

Professional. Responsible. Mature. All adjectives that don’t exactly sit well with most people’s image of a rock ‘n’ roll band. If you then add “competent” and “Christian”, you’re really starting to head for trouble. Yet, in truth, all these words more-than-fairly describe California’s Starflyer 59, however one attempts to slice it (they would own the latter without argument). This makes for pleasant, even solid, background music that’s largely devoid of any real Sturm und Drang inspiration unless (perhaps) you happen to share the faith they wear so prominently on their pristine sleeves.

Given the band’s musical reference points — the Psychedelic Furs, New Order, My Bloody Valentine — I really wanted to love this release. Instead, I merely liked it. And only then when I managed to stay focused in the first place. Their warm, vaguely shoe-gazery cling-wrap sound has a tendency to cause dissociation and semi-comatose distraction in listeners. Intended effect or not, such narcoleptic drowsiness militates against any chance the band (or its sound) ever has of sticking around long enough in anyone’s memory to be later recalled at all, let alone evaluated. Ten years and 7 full-length albums on, and how many music fans summon their name when discussing fairly successful careers even within the ghetto-constraints (amid the downcast stares) of indie rock?

My vague bitching aside, are there any positives? Of course there are. Production-wise, Old is a very assured record, less completely saturated with sound than previous efforts. The band seems to have largely dropped the reverb and delay on Jason Martin’s hushed voice that was so prevalent on earlier releases, a development that indicates two (possibly related) evolutionary paths: a tentative move away from their formerly overt shoegazing style, and an increase in Martin’s confidence as a vocalist. Overall, the sound is rich and temperate, which would be oh-so fine and dandy if it didn’t lead to that problematic homogeneity, however.

A Britpop guitar hook reminiscent of mid-’90s Catatonia, or even Elastica, runs through opener “Underneath”, a song about the futility of achieving wisdom at an age when it’s nearly useless. Jason Martin’s whispery croon is augmented (fairly successfully) in the chorus by attention-grabbing falsetto backing vocals. Subtle keys daub at the edges. Far less subtle orchestral synths wash over most everything else. It’s a competently realised, even faintly portentous song. Problem is, the next song — “Major Awards” — is a little too similar in sound and execution. As is the next. And so on. Admittedly, the band allow far more spaces within the mix than previously, yet even if the standard Psychedelic Furs-meets-MBV surround-sound is weighted more heavily toward the former this time around, very little — other than a willingness to avoid repeating themselves from album to album — rises above the warm mélange. It’s merely a different warm mélange, in other words.

Sure, there are rousing chimes and edgy harmonica here and there, most notably on the perfectly enjoyable “Passengers”, as if SF59 are committed to at least chipping away at their former mold — an ambition that’s always admirable, however limited. It’s just that these attempts to play with sonic possibilities rarely lift the songs sufficiently from their sea-level horizons to either startle or surprise or truly grab the emotions.

The title track is a relief if only for its switch from mid- to down-tempo (face it, any tempo change would be welcome, seven songs in). It’s a well-executed piano ballad, a sombre plaint aimed at the ageing process, a sad drizzle replacing the customary drenching. Between that and the earlier decrying of relationship conflict, it seems that Martin has been doing some soul-searching. And he does it well, albeit unspectacularly. “Unbelievers”, eminently listenable with its stark single-string guitar progressions and synth washes, recalls both the Cure (circa Disintegration) and New Order (circa Low Life), without any of the former’s intensity or the latter’s endearing awkwardness.

I’m aware of how damning with faint praise this review has been, but I simply don’t hear a great deal of passion or even quirkiness on Old. The songwriting is merely decent; businesslike and uninspired. There are scattered hooks, a few melodic head-turners — the Floydian banshee guitar wails of “First Heart Attack”, for instance — but overall, this record floats too comfortably within the unforgiving nameless zone between derivatively bland and professionally lush. Although it’s taken them a while to get here, let’s hope Starflyer 59 aspire to yet another level, since hints of something worthwhile do seem to lurk within the apparently featureless marble, quite possibly awaiting only the deftest chip of a poised, well-angled chisel.