Brought to You by the Letter S
Starflyer, Sarah and the Second Quarter Report
I first heard Starflyer 59 on a tribute album to Steve Taylor.
Yes, a musician most people have never heard of garnered a tribute album full of performances by bands most people have never heard of. But my abiding love for Taylor led me to pick up I Predict a Clone, which introduced me to all kinds of artists I’d never heard. Circle of Dust, for example, led off the record with a killer version of “Am I In Sync,” and now here I am buying the remastered reissues of all of the CoD albums, having followed the band’s mastermind Klayton into his new incarnation as Celldweller.
Sitting at track three was the strangest take on “Sin for a Season,” all impossibly thick guitars, crawling drums and a voice like a baritone whisper. I’m not sure I knew shoegaze when I heard it back then, but this was shoegaze so heavy you could measure it in tons. This was Starflyer 59, led by Jason Martin, and their immortal 1994 debut album (self-titled, but always called Silver) was more of the same. Snail’s-pace songs, what sounds like hundreds of guitars playing the same riff, Martin’s barely-there voice, an album so heavy you can’t lift it.
Twenty-two years later, I remain amazed at the continued existence and quality of Starflyer 59. Jason Martin is the sole member of the band, working with a rotating cast, and over 14 albums, 8 EPs and a pair of box sets, he’s led Starflyer on a merry dance through synth-colored pop, atmospheric melancholia, acoustic folk and straight-up rock. No two Starflyer records sound the same, but all of them are worth hearing. Listen to them all in a row and you’ll have no choicee but to admit that Jason Martin is an unheralded superstar, a songwriter and musician who really should be a lot more well-known.
The fact that he isn’t lends each new Starflyer album an air of the miraculous. In 2013, Martin went it alone, turning to crowdfunding to create IAMACEO, SF59’s punchy 13th full-length, and despite its apparent success, I figured that would be the last we’d see of him. But amazingly, here he is again with album 14, back on Tooth and Nail Records, and I hope this means a nice new contract and many more Starflyer platters. I’m especially excited because Slow, that 14th album, is excellent. As per usual with Starflyer albums, my only complaint is this: it’s too short.
Even by Starflyer standards, Slow seems brief: its eight songs last only 32 minutes. But it is a full emotional journey. The title track lives up to its name, inching forward like a ‘50s ballad, all ringing piano chords and reverb, Martin singing of time passing by: “My kids they grow up fast, I want it slow, so slow...” The record really kicks in with “Told Me So,” a superb ‘80s indie rocker with a tremendous guitar riff, and explodes with “Cherokee,” a skipping powerhouse that reminds me of early Cure albums. Martin’s crack band this time is bassist Steve Dail and drummer Trey Many, and as a trio, they kill it here. Martin’s voice hasn’t changed – it’s still lower than low, half-spoken, eerie and unsettling.
“Wrongtime” doubles down on the Cure influence, this time taking from the Disintegration era with its propulsive bass lines and clean guitar melodies. Speaking as someone who can’t get enough of this particular sound, this one’s a delight. “Retired” feels like a statement on Martin’s age and the state of his band: “I used to be the MVP, I used to be the center of a scene, I used to be the funny one, I used to be the setting sun, it’s tough to be retired when there’s so much left to do...” As if to prove how much he still has in him, he then hits us with “Runaround,” the loudest and fastest thing here, and then slides into home with “Numb,” a dark tale of slipping away: “Was it really better back then, were there really less problems, or was it really that because then you weren’t so numb...”
Slow is short, but it doesn’t feel that way. Its eight songs are among Jason Martin’s strongest, and as a full album, it's among his best. More than two decades after first hearing them, I remain grateful that Starflyer 59 is still a going concern. Slow is another terrific Starflyer album in a long line of them. I’m never sure I’m going to get another one, so I try to savor each one. I hope Martin means it when he says it’s tough to be retired. He’s too wonderful to stay quiet. Long live Starflyer 59, I say.
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Time for another quick installment of Man, I Feel Like an Idiot. Despite hearing great things about her for years, I never bought a Sarah Jarosz album until last week. Considering how much I like – nay, love – her new one, Undercurrent, I’m gonna say that waiting this long was a pretty stupid decision.
Jarosz made her name in bluegrass circles – she plays guitar and mandolin and sings like a down-home angel. She’s played with Punch Brothers and Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan, and I’m pretty sure I have a dozen or so records she’s guested on. But Undercurrent is proof that on her own, she’s something else altogether. Her songs are rooted in the traditional, but ache with honesty, and her arrangements sparkle. When she’s not going it solo, as she does on the lovely opener “Early Morning Light,” she sings with Jedd Hughes, and the two have a Buddy and Julie Miller vibe on several of these tracks.
While I love “Early Morning Light” – and who wouldn’t? – the album took off for me with track two, “Green Lights.” A soaring pop melody, some subtle yet wonderful electric guitar from Luke Reynolds, and a celebration of anything-can-happen love: “Green lights and open road and skies of endless blue, that’s the feeling I get when I’m with you...” “House of Mercy” takes us down a dustier road, Jarosz and Hughes harmonizing beautifully: “Don’t try and change my mind, that knock gets louder every time, don’t try and wear me down, you’ll never get inside this house...”
“Back of My Mind” is an almost supernaturally beautiful waltz about holding on to people you shouldn’t. The bigger arrangements here (including pedal steel from Reynolds) suit it well, but Jarosz is just as effective on her own, with nothing but her guitar. “Take Another Turn” is a pretty song about moving forward, while “Everything to Hide” is a darker piece about hidden and forbidden love. Jarosz invites both Watkins and O’Donovan to add fiddle, guitar and vocals to the deceptively tricky “Still Life,” but ends the record alone: “Jacqueline” is a sweet lament for Jackie Kennedy, in her pillbox hat and bright pink dress, dying and moving on: “You covered up with a blanket of light, Jackie won’t you walk with me tonight, maybe in a little while I’ll feel alright...”
It’s haunting, like much of Undercurrent, deep and wide and open and powerful. Jarosz’ voice is lovely, her songs even lovelier, her album one of my favorites in a (so far) very good year. I feel pretty dumb for not exploring her work earlier, but I’m in now, swept away, ready to hear more. This album knocked me out.
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Hey, look at that, the year’s half over.
That means it’s time for the Second Quarter Report, where I give you a look at my top 10 list in progress. As I mentioned above, this year has been very good, and the list has changed dramatically since March. I’m sure there will be some surprises here, and I definitely expect there will be more surprises on the way. Here’s the list as it stands right now:
10. Cloud Cult, The Seeker.
9. Steve Hindalong, The Warbler.
8. Gungor, One Wild Life: Spirit.
7. Anderson Paak, Malibu.
6. Sarah Jarosz, Undercurrent.
5. David Bowie, Blackstar.
4. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool.
3. Beyonce, Lemonade.
2. Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger.
1. Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution.
Esperanza’s still hanging on to that top spot. Yes, her album really is that good.
I was actually all set to review Steve Hindalong’s album this week (as his name starts with S), but then I realized that it’s not available for sale yet outside the Kickstarter backers. It will be next week, so I’ll review it then, along with others from my excursion to the fourth annual AudioFeed Festival. Should be a longer one, and I hope to have it up on time.
I’ll leave you with this, easily the best music news of my week. If Act V is anywhere near as amazing as Act IV, I’ll be rearranging those top spots again before the Third Quarter Report. We’re also getting the new Marillion before then, too. As Tori Amos once sang, pretty good year.
Next week, AudioFeed. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.