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Starflyer 59 | The Changing of the Guard | review | alternative | Lollipop
The Changing of the Guard (Tooth & Nail)
by Scott Deckman
I've been a pretty big champion of Jason Martin's main vehicle, Starflyer 59, since I first heard 1999's Everybody Makes Mistakes, an album, to my listening ears at least, without precedent (I was not a fan of shoegaze or similar-sounding bands at the time). An ethereal thing of hazy beauty, it was a very good, nay, nearly great record that has only gotten better with time. And it was topped by a smidge with 2001's Leave Here a Stranger, an album not only inspired by Pet Sounds, but one so beautiful, it had some people calling it the Pet Sounds of the new millennium. It was that good. Martin has continued to release good records since then, a steady collection of 7s and 8s.
The Changing of the Guard, while not a failure, is definitely the weakest effort during the last nine years; I'm rating it a 6.5, but like all things, that could change in time. But even a less-than average Starflyer 59 record is bestowed with a few highlights in its own right. "Coconut Trees" is a breezy, country-esque, almost tropical-sounding mid-tempo jaunt. The song features a Western-sounding guitar and tasteful accents on certain beats. Its sister song, "CMAR," initials for Cry Me A River, is about as rocking as this album gets. But it does rock in a Starflyer way, the guitars so clean you can eat off them. Again, the hallmark of all Jason Martin records (at least the ones I've heard, and I've heard quite a few) is the spit-shine studio polish, and on The Changing of the Guard, it's here in spades. For a guy who clearly takes his time with every track, plays shows, and otherwise works for a living (he drives a truck in a family business; he's now recording bands at Jason Martin Recording (www.jasonmartinrecording.com), it's very impressive that he manages a release of some kind nearly every year.
I used to think of him as a great songwriter, and while he may still be, it's the title of Soundmaster and whether he acknowledges or even realizes it the spiritual successor to Brian Wilson, for which he should be known. No, the born-again Martin won't be dropping acid or pouring sand in the home studio anytime soon, but something even deeper than religion ties these two: A Type A need for the perfect sound. Fellow believer Daniel Smith of Danielson Famile/Brother Danielson fame once opined to me that all creativity comes from God, even the bad stuff, or something similar, and I posit that the same type of muse flows through both Martin and Wilson's bones. Whatever their individual eschatological beliefs, they are aural brothers.
It's just on The Changing of the Guard, Martin seems to play it safe. Maybe in his quest for perfection, he's sanded off so many bumps that the music itself loses its edge. Not everything is the same ole same ole though. "Truckers Son," which suggests that his recently-passed father is still on his mind and heart, employs metronome-sounding percussion to odd effect. Not odd in and of itself, it's just I've never heard Martin use this type of percussion so noticeably before. (In line with the above theme, opener "Fun is Fun" may reference his deceased father as well.) Martin's love of keys and synthetics are here in addition to, as always, well-placed guitar licks just not enough of them. Of the two overtly religious songs on the record, the better one is "Shane," where the Old West gunslinger is a metaphor for Christ himself, a comforting, powerful edifice for the faithful in trying times. "Sometimes it don't make sense. It's best to leave it alone. It makes me feel real small. That he controls the winds." But the chorus is the payoff: "Like Shane, he comes, when you need him." Yet Martin later opines: "And you can't go home," a lyric open to interpretation, though he's known to sing about earthly troubles, à la "Coconuts Trees" and "Lose My Mind." The artist always leaves'm guessing.
The circumspect, reverent Martin isn't likely to be on TMZ for spousal abuse or for being busted soliciting a hooker anytime soon... we hope. But one does wish that he'd drink a beer or two, watch the combat sport of his choosing, get the juices up and running, maybe get pissed at the current presidential administration, do something to rekindle that righteous ire and turn up those distorted guitars and grind out a post-apocalyptic squall akin to 2004's underrated I Am the Portuguese Blues (something Girls Against Boys were always supposed to be good at but never quite delivered on). Get a little loose Mr. Martin. Think Jesus, think Moneychangers, now combine that with your studio wizardry and give me yet another reason to tout you.