Starflyer 59: Old

David Antrobus

Starflyer 59


Label: Tooth and Nail
US Release Date: 2003-05-20
UK Release Date: 2003-10-06

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.





Masaki Kobayashi's 'Kwaidan' Horror Films Are Horrifically Beautiful

The four haunting tales of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan are human and relatable, as well as impressive at a formal and a technical level.


The Top 10 Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Films

Serious science fiction often takes a backseat to the more pulpy, crowdpleasing genre entries. Here are 10 titles far better than any "dogfight in space" adventure.


'The Kill Chain': Why America Might Lose Its Next Big War

Christian Brose's defense-nerd position paper, The Kill Chain, inadvertently reveals that the Pentagon's problems (complacency, inertia, arrogance) reflect those of the country at large.


2006's 'Flat-Pack Philosophy' Saw Buzzcocks Determined to Build Something of Quality

With a four-decade career under their belt, on the sixth disc in the new box-set Sell You Everything, it's heartening to see Buzzcocks refusing to settle for an album that didn't try something new.


'Lie With Me': Beauty, Love and Toxic Masculinity in the Gay '80s

How do we write about repression and toxic masculinity without valorizing it? Philippe Besson's Lie With Me is equal parts poignant tribute and glaring warning.


Apparat's 'Soundtrack: Capri-Revolution' Stands Alone As a Great Ambient Experience

Apparat's (aka Sascha Ring) re-imagined score from Mario Martone's 2018 Capri-Revolution works as a fine accompaniment to a meditational flight of fancy.


Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers Merge Haitian Folk and Electronic Music on 'Vodou Alé'

Haitian roots music meets innovative electronics on Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers' Vodou Alé.

My Favorite Thing

Weird and Sweet, Riotous and Hushed: The Beatles' 'The White Album'

The Beatles' 'The White Album' is a piece of art that demonstrates how much you can stretch, how far you can bend, how big you really are. The album is deeply weird. It has mass. It has its own weather.


Sarah Jarosz Finds Inspiration in Her Texas Roots on 'World on the Ground'

By turning to her roots in central Texas for inspiration on World on the Ground, Sarah Jarosz has crafted some of her strongest songs yet.


Hinds' 'The Prettiest Curse' Is One of Victory

On The Prettiest Curse, Hinds create messy pop music that captures the vibrancy of youth without being childish.


12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.