A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: Starflyer 59

This is part of a regular ongoing series, in which I examine the history and discography of some of the best artists in the underground Christian rock scene of the 1980s and 1990s. That scene doesn’t really exist anymore, largely because Christian music is more about producing songs for congregational worship instead of songs about literally any other topic. My hope is that these essays will spur our readers to listen to some of these bands and support them financially; many of them are still more or less active. I also hope that I’ll be able to take some steps toward demonstrating that Christian rock–even if most of it was terrible–had some genuine artists among its ranks.


A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: Starflyer 59

starflyer-59

WHO ARE THEY? The third band signed to Tooth and Nail Records—the mothership of ‘90s Christian alternative—Starflyer 59 is, incredibly, still signed to that label, long after their early labelmates left or broke up. Not that the band’s present work would be particularly recognizable to the people who bought Silver in 1994. Starflyer’s early sound owed a great debt to Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine, adding the heavy, distorted guitars of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream on top of that swirling, psychedelic sound. The melodies were essentially nonexistent, and the vocals were whispered, such that you can barely make out the lyrics. Over the years, however, Starflyer gradually transformed into an indie rock band with a remarkably varied sound, as we shall see.

The band essentially is Jason Martin, a full-time truck driver from Riverside, California. Martin sings and plays guitar; in the early days, he also played the drums. No lineup has remained consistent for very long, which means Starflyer, at least in the long run, really is Martin’s solitary vision, basically a solo act. His day job is important. Martin’s publishing company is called Blue Collar Songs, and there is something of the assembly line in his songwriting: After the early albums, his songs, almost without exception, have a first verse; a chorus; a second verse whose lyrics often change only a few words from the first; another chorus; an instrumental break; and a final chorus. Few people, I think, listen to Starflyer for the lyrics.

Where Martin excels is in creating soundscapes, layers and layers of guitars and keyboards that have a strange beauty to them even at their most jarring. More than two decades on, Starflyer is still alive and kicking, although they no longer tour due to Martin’s familial responsibilities; their most recent album, Slow, came out this summer.

GENRE TAGS (OTHER THAN ALTERNATIVE ROCK). Dream Pop, Indie Pop, Indie Rock, Shoegaze, Slowcore

RIYL Jesus and Mary Chain, Low, Mazzy Star, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Smashing Pumpkins

WHY DO I KNOW THAT NAME? Starflyer provided the title for the recent documentary about Tooth and Nail Records, No New Kinda Story. You may also have heard Daron Malakian, the guitarist for System of a Down, declare himself a fan back in the early 21st century. Other than that, unless you’re into this scene already, you probably don’t know that name.

WHAT’S THEIR BEST SONG? “No New Kinda Story,” actually—a great New Order tribute with a video that’s a great Ingmar Bergman tribute.


DISCOGRAPHY

MUST-HEAR

Everybody Makes Mistakes (1999). Starflyer’s only album with Gene Eugene as an 600x600official member is, unsurprisingly, its most keyboard-heavy. Eugene takes the instrumental lead on both “20 Dollar Bills” and “The Party,” and he fills out the sound on just about every other song, even the most guitar-driven. As such, Everybody Makes Mistakes is atmospheric in a way that the band’s earlier records were not; at times, it borders on ambient pop.

There’s quite a variety of sounds here: “Going Places” is jangle pop, or something close to it; “A Dethroned King” recalls the heavy metal influences of Americana; and “My Name” is probably the closest Martin’s ever going to come to writing a country song. And yet no band other than Starflyer could have been responsible for this record—Martin’s vocals (and to a lesser extent, his guitar work) are so distinctive that every song he sings is inexorably branded as his. Only the jokey smooth-jazz reprise of “The Party” doesn’t sound like a Starflyer song.

Everbody Makes Mistakes also marks the beginning of Martin’s habit of writing songs about the process of writing songs—but not exactly in a metafictive way. “Play the C Chord,” if it’s about anything (never a guarantee), is about rock-star messianic posturing and the emptying-out of creativity. (Also, according to the liner notes, it’s in D-sharp, a key without a C chord.) “Going Places” finds Martin putting out a personal ad seeking a drummer, and “No More Shows” depicts the tension between his day job and his music. It would end up being prophetic once Martin retired from touring in 2005. 

NEXT STEPS

Americana (1997). The best of the shoegazer records finds Jason Martin slathering his songs with Black Sabbath-style metal riffs—to wonderful effect. “The Voyager,” “All You Want Are the Things I Need,” and “The Boulevard” rock harder even than anything on Gold. americanaMartin’s growing more confident as a singer, too, and while he’s hardly Ozzy Osbourne, he’s no longer burying his vocals in the mix. (The lyrics are obliquely religious here, rather than moping over girls, as they did on Silver and Gold.)

The legendary Gene Eugene, who also produced the record, fills out the sound with a variety of keyboards: ‘70s Fender Rhodes on “Help Me When You’re Gone,” Hammond B-3 on “You Don’t Miss Me,” and a solid foundation of Moog on “The Hearttaker,” my favorite song on Americana. The album’s rhythm section is Eric Campuzano and Wayne Everett of the Prayer Chain, and the drums in particular are much stronger here than on Martin’s previous work. Everett also sings a little bit of French, as is his wont, on “Harmony.”

I listened obsessively to Americana in the summer of 1998, probably the three-month period of my life in which music meant most to me, and so perhaps I’m overrating it, while simultaneously underrating Silver and Gold. But what I know is that those records feel weighed down in a way that this one does not—there’s a lot of variety within the general sound here, and I never get bored with it.

Leave Here a Stranger (2001). It took me a long time to come around on Leave Here a Stranger. It was openly Jason Martin’s attempt to make his Pet Sounds, and as such he had his hero Terry Taylor produce it—undoubtedly the person in the Christian rock scene best mi0000321262poised to help him. But of course Leave Here a Stranger could never be Pet Sounds, for at least three reasons: (1) Martin’s songs have almost nothing in common with the sunshine pop of mid-‘60s Beach Boys; (2) No one could sing five-part harmony on a Starflyer album; and (3) They didn’t have the budget to hire a full orchestra, and so they had to replicate one using synthesizers.

So Leave Here a Stranger sounds nothing like Pet Sounds, and that threw me off in 2001. But returning to the album fifteen years later, I find that there’s an awful lot to love here. The arrangements are every bit as intricate as Brian Wilson’s, and keyboardist Josh Dooley manages to squeeze a very wide range of sounds out of his instrument. The songs are quite personal—most of them, picking up where Everybody Makes Mistakes left off, are about Martin’s dissatisfaction with his recording career, and songs like “All My Friends Who Play Guitar” and “This I Don’t Need” are among the best of his career. What’s more, “Give Up the War” is Martin’s most explicitly religious song to this point, and it’s one of the most moving things he’s ever written.

The centerpiece of the album is the six-minute-plus “I Like Your Photographs” (nearly eight minutes if you count its outro track, “…Moves On”), in which Taylor pulls out every psychedelic trick in his bag. It sounds more like the Moody Blues than the Beach Boys, but who’s complaining?

The Changing of the Guard (2012). The years after Leave Here a Stranger were not terribly kind to Jason Martin. His albums in the New Aughts mostly found him imitating the sounds of the past, and they are weak compared to his previous records. His voice—aided, I think, by cigarettes (he refers to “the damage to my lungs” in “Passengers”)—began to decay. starflyer-59-the-changing-of-the-guardIt was never conventionally good, but by the end of the decade it had turned croaky and rotting. His father died somewhere between 2006 and 2008, and he took over his trucking company, removing Starflyer from the touring circuit, possibly forever.

The Changing of the Guard is a return to quality, if not to form. Martin has learned how to use his new voice, and he puts it to the service—of all things—of folk-rock, a mode he’d never really written in before. The album features a number of recurring Starflyer themes: anxiety about aging, anxiety about the quality of his music, anxiety about his day job. These topics got old on Dial M and My Island, but here they result in some excellent songs: the Twilight Zone riff “Kick the Can” (I don’t know this, but I think the album title is a reference to another Twilight Zone episode), the M. Ward-esque “C.M.A.R.,” the Jesus-as-cowboy Morricone homage “Shane.”

Other songs—“The Morning Rise / Frightened Eyes,” “I Had a Song for the Ages”—can pretty accurately be called jangle pop, which is definitely not a genre I ever thought I’d hear Jason Martin take on. But he does a great job with them, and if nothing else, The Changing of the Guard demonstrates just how musically adventurous he is capable of being.

The Fashion Focus (1998). If the internet is to be believed, The Fashion Focus was marketed as the Christian OK Computer. I certainly don’t remember that, and I was 500x500reviewing Christian rock records at the time. I do remember getting my promo copy of it and being astounded at the sound—this wasn’t Starflyer, at least not the Starflyer I’d known. The change was permanent. Martin wrote a few more shoegaze songs (“Too Much Fun,” one of his best guitar solos, is the example from this record), but from here on out he pursued softer, more nuanced styles.

The Fashion Focus announces itself with four of the best songs Martin ever wrote—in four different genres: “I Drive a Lot” is propulsive indie pop with a synthesized string part cribbed from The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”; “We’re the Ordinary” is mopey mood music with a harmonica that sounds like a long sigh; “Sundown,” for the first time in Starflyer’s discography, rides a groove; and “Fell in Love at 22” takes the ‘60s lounge influence that always lurked under Martin’s songs to their logical conclusion.

The record does drag a bit toward the end, but The Fashion Focus is more consistent and more varied than I’d remembered before I returned to it for this project. And by the way, it sounds absolutely nothing like OK Computer.

starflyer59-fellinloveat22Fell in Love at 22 (EP, 1999). All five songs here are more or less in the dream pop mold, including the title track, which first appeared on The Fashion Focus. Martin’s guitar tone is wonderfully warm and reverby throughout (in fact, “We Want It Bad” is an ode to his new compression pedal, without which I’m sure these songs never would have taken shape). The highlight is the fourteen-minute, repetitive but not boring instrumental “Traffic Jam.”

Can’t Stop Eating (EP, 2002). This EP is organized around two covers, one of Jason 220px-cant_stop_eatingMartin’s side project Bon Voyage’s best song, “West Coast Friendship” and one of Damien Jurado’s “Happy Birthday John.” The former isn’t as good as the original—it’s hard to imagine anyone improving on the original—but it’s a great song and great to hear in any form. I don’t know the Jurado version of “Happy Birthday John,” but in Martin’s hands it’s a big Beatlesque pop number, complete with George Harrison slide guitar from producer Andy Prickett.

The EP also features a new song called “Compeating” and a stereo mix of Leave Here a Stranger’s standout track “Give Up the War.” It ends with Martin’s Twin Peaks-style theme to J. Edward Keyes’s online novel Dromedary, one of the highlights of following Christian rock in the early 21st century. Martin had been playing Ennio Morricone twangy, reverby guitar for the last few albums—here it reaches its apex.

starflyer_59_-_the_last_laurel_epThe Last Laurel (EP, 2004). Martin followed up two underwhelming rock albums (Old and I Am the Portuguese Blues—see below) with this return to loping, sleepy indie pop. It can’t be a coincidence that the first track is called “Softness, Goodness”; it feels like an apology for the previous two albums. Only the swaggering, becowbelled “Thin as a Needle” owes something to Portuguese Blues, and it’s the weakest song here. The Last Laurel is a return to form, even if it’s not particularly mind-blowing.

WORTH A LISTEN

Silver (1994). Produced by Mortal’s Jyro Xhan and Jerome Fontamillas, Starflyer’s debut album is a big slab of guitar effects—chorus, tremolo, feedback, and especially distortion. It sounds fabulous in places: the tremolo swoops on “Blue Collar Love,” the My Bloody Valentine-esque whammy bar workout “The Zenith,” and the chorused lead lines on “Hazel Would.” But even at 35 minutes, the sameness of the album wears me out.

IAMACEO (2013). The independently released follow-up to The Changing of the Guard is largely in the same folk-rock mode as its predecessor, with some new wave touches on the title track and “Red Tide.” Martin is still struggling with adult life, but he sounds much sunnier here, especially on “Bicycle Rider” and “Pot of Gold.” The songs aren’t as uniformly strong as those on The Changing of the Guard, but they’re mostly good songs, especially if you’re predisposed to like this era of Starflyer’s career.

Gold (1995). Starflyer’s second full-length is one of the great lost mope albums of the alternative era, and in many ways it improves on its predecessor substantially: The guitars are louder, the songs are actual songs, and Martin includes some truly impressive noise. If you like the feedback screech that announces “A Housewife Love Song,” wait until you hear the middle eight of “Duel Overhead Cam,” maybe my favorite use of noise on a rock album ever. There’s some variety in the record, too; Martin includes some slowcore respites from the loudness (most notably “One Shot Juanita” and “When You Feel the Mess”). But there’s just way too much of it—the songs stretch on repetitively, and the tone of the album is too uniform to sustain its 51-minute length (by far the longest Starflyer album).

I Am the Portuguese Blues (2004). I’m not sure anyone saw this album coming. Portuguese Blues is ten songs and 28 minutes of AC/DC-style hard rock: big, stupid riffs and crackling drums, overlaid, of course, with Jason Martin’s sleepy, mumbly vocals. The results are varied. The best track here is the instrumental “Sound on Sound,” but the opening duo “Wake Up Early” and “Unlucky” have their charms. It’s saved from the discount bin by its abbreviated length and Martin’s sheer perverseness in releasing it.

Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice (2005). At their core, most of the songs on Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice are new wave, with heavily compressed drums, serpentine synthesizers, and palm-muted guitar. There’s a heavy New Order influence here, especially on “Good Sons” and the album-closing “The Longest Line.” Several of the songs, however, are augmented by a string quartet, and these string arrangements—tending toward the dissonant and arranged by drummer Franz Lenz—are the real highlight of the album, especially on “A Lists Go On” and “Softness, Goodness.”

Slow (2016). Jason Martin has been obsessed with growing old for almost a decade and a half, and Starflyer’s latest record continues that obsession. The opening title track asks time to slow down, while the closer, “Numb,” finds him questioning his own nostalgia. The music is pretty varied—there’s heavy rock (“Hi Low”), glimmering new wave (“Wrongtime”), and the sort of slowcore Martin made in the mid-‘90s (“Slow”). The songs are not as strong as I’d like them to be, but for a band entering its second decade, Slow is quite good.

THE DISCOUNT BIN

She’s the Queen (EP, 1994). The follow-up to Silver finds Martin already playing with the band’s sound: something approximating traditional pop in “She Was My Sweet Heart” (though his vocals can’t sell the sound at all); synth pop in a remix of “Blue Collar Love” (courtesy of Martin’s brother Ronnie, of Joy Electric); punk rock in “Canary Row.” None of these experiments are all that successful, though, and the best songs are the ones that sound the most like Silver: the title track and “Salinas.”

Le Vainqueur (EP, 1995). Three Gold-era songs that would have fit in just fine on Gold. The title track, which appears in two forms, is the obvious winner here, especially the extended and nasty guitar solo at the end of the longer version—the two songs in the middle are much less successful.

Goodbyes Are Sad (single, 1995). These two songs are Starflyer in full-on slowcore mode. Neither of them is all that distinguished, but I do like the melodic feedback that flavors “Next Time Around.”

I Win (2006). The best song on one of Starflyer’s worst albums, plus three B-sides. The best of them is the ominous instrumental “White Fog.” “Family Line” is maybe the least typical song in Starflyer’s catalogue; I’m not sure I even have words to describe it, but it combines Martin’s laconic vocals with something approaching Caribbean rhythms. “W.S. 2005” is lackluster dream pop, a mode that this band can do in their sleep.

Old (2003). This concept album about aging and infidelity takes on a sound Starflyer hadn’t really tried before: 1980s post-punk. The results are occasionally satisfying: Franz Lenz’s parody-metal backing vocals at the end of “Underneath” are one of my favorite things on any Starflyer record, and “Major Awards” is a nice swipe at indie rock gatekeeping. But almost every song here has the same tempo, the same tone (creeping menace), and similar riffs, and so there’s no reason to continue on for ten songs.

My Island (2006). Adding Steven Dail of the hardcore band Project 86 on bass seems to have pushed Starflyer back into post-punk, with discouraging results. There’s nothing wrong with post-punk as a genre, but it’s not Jason Martin’s forte by any means—most of the songs here are pretty seriously lacking in melody or vibe, although the dance-punk “Nice Guy” and the surf-rock “I Win” are both good. I always appreciate Martin trying new things, but the experiments here largely fail. Too bad—the cover art’s awesome.

FOR FANS ONLY

Dial M (2008). “For once or maybe twice,” Martin sings on the opening “Minor Keys,” “I was in my prime.” He’s clearly nervous that he’s lost his touch—and with good reason; Dial M is singularly uninspired. He’s pushed the new wave underpinnings of Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice to their logical extremes (which is fine), but, as with My Island, the songs just aren’t there, and to top it off, his vocals are just plain bad. (He hadn’t yet learned how to use his new voice.) The dancier the record gets, the less convincing it is, with “Concentrate” and “Altercation” as its twin nadirs.


 

GREATEST HITS, ETC.

Starflyer has put out two two-disc collections. The first, 2000’s Easy Come, Easy Go features a greatest-hits disc and then a disc of B-sides and outtakes, along with a very nice live set from the era. 2009’s Automatic is a little stranger—the first disc is early versions of songs from Dial M (many of them superior to the album versions), along with some B-sides; the second is a collection of EPs, many of which were previously hard to find.


 

LIVE ALBUMS

Plugged (1996), a live EP, was once the holy grail for Starflyer collectors. It’s from the noisiest period of the band’s history, and it’s now available from Velvet Blue Music—but I haven’t heard it. (I don’t seek out live albums, even for these essays.) The band released a second live album, Never Play Covers, in 2005, right around the time they stopped playing live shows. It’s mostly songs from Portuguese Blues and Old, hardly my favorite records.


SIDE PROJECTS

Many. Starflyer itself happened after the breakup of Dance House Children, Jason Martin’s alternative dance band with his brother Ronnie (who went on to found Joy Electric). Their two records are much closer to Joy Electric than to Starflyer 59, though there are occasionally some shoegazer touches to their music. The Martins would team up again in 2007 for The Brothers Martin album, which sounds much more like a collaboration—the songs shift between rock songs with synthesizer accompaniment to straight-up Joy Electric-style synth pop.

Martin’s most notable side project is probably Bon Voyage, for which his wife Julie sings. They sound, appropriately enough, like Starflyer with a female vocalist. I don’t find their three records all that compelling, but “West Coast Friendship” is probably the best song Martin has ever written, and the Bon Voyage version is far superior to the one on Starflyer’s Can’t Stop Eating EP.

Martin was (is?) also involved with the anonymous super-group Neon Horse, also featuring Stavesacre’s Mark Salomon and Starflyer/Project 86 bassist Steven Dail. It’s pretty good up-tempo ‘80s-style rock—Salomon is certainly doing something different with his vocals, as their single “Cuckoo” demonstrates. He was also involved in a band with members of Stavesacre called Enemy Ships; they were supposedly signed to Atlantic Records, but the promised album never materialized.

Martin plays bass for Jeff Cloud’s band Pony Express, which traffics in the sort of whisper-quiet dream pop that Starflyer was making in the late ‘90s.


 

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