The early ’90s shoegazing sound was primarily a British bandwagon. The few Americans who took part, such bands as Velocity Girl, the Lilys and Lenola, did so relatively late in the game. When Orange County, California’s Starflyer 59 came along in 1994, that train had almost completely departed the station. Yet SF59 managed to extend the style longer and into more diverse territory than most; by the time the last of the feedback drones had faded out of their music, they could be counted on to deliver engagingly downbeat pop in the mode of the Zombies or Red House Painters.
SF59 mainman Jason Martin got his start in his brother Ronnie’s early-’90s Christian synth-pop outfit the Dance House Children. By that band’s second album it was clear that Jason’s interest in British guitar bands was no longer meshing very well with Ronnie’s ’80s-centric technopop. When Dance House Children broke up, Ronnie followed his muse into the highly idiosyncratic, sometimes downright goofy Joy Electric, while Jason indulged his Ride / Pale Saints / My Bloody Valentine jones in the moody and dramatic SF59.
The band’s self-titled debut — known as Silver due to its monochromatic cover — introduces Martin’s hushed vocals and a hint of his melodic gifts, but the adherence to shoegazer orthodoxy is limiting, and the album suffers from a lack of variety. Still, the crunchy “Blue Collar Love,” the droning “Hazel Would” and the swirling “The Zenith” stand out, proof of Martin’s talent and potential.
She’s the Queen is notable mainly for “She Was My Sweetheart,” the first song to incorporate Martin’s interest in ’50s doo-wop into his dreampop, a development which would yield intriguing results further down the line. Otherwise, the eight-song mini-album combines new material and remixes, the most interesting of which is brother Ronnie’s transformation of “Blue Collar Love” into a synth track à la his own Joy Electric.
Martin’s self-production of a second color-coded self-titled album, Gold, as a one-man-band effort almost drove him to a breakdown. The self-imposed stress is audible in the music, which has a sterile, airless feel to it — all spontaneity has been crushed out of it. Gold is the loudest SF59 album, as Martin sought to merge his love of ’80s arena rockers like Journey with his Brit-rock fixation. The roaring results, which most closely resemble the Catherine Wheel’s Ferment, are hard to warm up to, though it has such memorable tracks as “A Housewife Love Song” and “You’re Mean,” which incorporates ’50s guitar twang into shoegazing.
Martin recruited a producer (Gene Eugene of the Christian underground mainstays Adam Again) and actual bandmates (Wayne Everett and Eric Campuzano of the likeminded Christian dream-pop band the Prayer Chain) for Americana, which has a warmer, more organic feel than Starflyer’s earlier work. But most of the changes are just tinkering around the edges: a blues riff here, an organ line there. Indicative of Martin’s growth as a songwriter, “Heart Taker,” “The Translator” and the radiant “Harmony” are among his best. For the most part, though, Americana is a rehash of the first two albums. Everett and Campuzano departed to form the Lassie Foundation, but Eugene stayed on board and became a de facto member of Starflyer 59.
Martin’s next release was by Bon Voyage, a side project with his bride, Julie. Essentially a series of love notes between the couple, Bon Voyage is a captivating album of pure pop. The music retains Jason’s melancholy melodic sensibility, but producer/keyboardist Eugene polishes it to a bright luster. Julie’s not a particularly strong vocalist, but her voice, a sort of sweeter Juliana Hatfield chirp, fits the material well.
With The Fashion Focus, Martin and Eugene transformed Starflyer 59 into an almost completely different band while still maintaining its identity — a delicate and impressive accomplishment. The drum roll and synth blast which begin “I Drive a Lot,” the lead track on The Fashion Focus, signal an escape from the corner Martin had painted SF59 into. Fueled by a soaring keyboard line and a lyric full of longing for a better life, “I Drive a Lot” is completely unlike anything previously released under the SF59 name yet still of a piece with it, while “Fell in Love at 22” is another excellent foray into doo-wop influenced pop.
The brief Everybody Makes Mistakes is essentially a sequel to The Fashion Focus, adding such wrinkles as the New Order-ish “No New Kinda Story.” Starflyer 59’s transformation from the last of the shoegazers to a strong but still decidedly moody pop band was complete.
After Gene Eugene died of a heart attack at the age of 39 in March 2000, Martin marked time with Easy Come, Easy Go, a two-disc retrospective. Disc one gathers up tracks from the five full length albums, while disc two collects cuts from the EPs, singles and compilations, as well as live performances.
Although he had become increasingly popular in secular circles, Martin chose the grand poobah of the Christian alternative music underground, Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos, to produce Leave Here a Stranger in mono as a tribute to the ’60s. The Zombies and Nick Drake are good touchstones for the slow, sad mood and sound, as well as contemporary artists like Damien Jurado, Mojave 3 and Mark Kozelek. As always, Martin crafts some gorgeous melodies, but these have even more of a 2 a.m. vibe than usual.
Can’t Stop Eating (a ridiculous non sequitur of a title, even by Starflyer standards) is another lovely little EP, four songs including “West Coast Friendship” (a re-recorded Bon Voyage tune) and a cover of Damien Jurado’s “Happy Birthday John.” At the same time, Martin released a second Bon Voyage album. With Taylor as producer, The Right Amount is near perfect pop that harks back to such singers such as Claudine Longet, Jane Birkin and Margo Guryan.
Old is another winner. Although Martin is still haunted by Eugene’s death (most notably on the closing song, “First Heart Attack”) much of the album is as close to upbeat as Starflyer 59 is likely to ever get. “Underneath” has a distinctively Smiths feel, while “Passengers” builds on a chiming Byrds-ish guitar line and “Unbelievers” takes another dip into the imaginary New Order catalog. “Loved Ones,” which resurrects the shoegazing sound of the band’s early work, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Silver. The sparkling “New Wife, New Life” and “The Kissing Song” indicate that Jason might not be saving all his upbeat romantic material for the missus to sing anymore. While the album title might have suggested fatigue and mortality, in Starflyer 59’s case it means experience and confidence.
The monochromatic blue-metallic cover of I Am the Portuguese Blues would seem to signal a throwback to SF59’s earlier days, and so it is: the songs date back to the Americana sessions, abandoned as the band headed into the more layered sounds of The Fashion Focus. Returning to the old tracks, Martin and company decided to just bash them out as straight-ahead rockers, recalling the roar of Gold without that album’s shoegazing elements. The result is by far the most minor album in the SF59 catalog — an unconvincing slab of mostly personality-free faux-garage rock that evaporates from memory in a shorter amount of time than it takes to say the title aloud. While this is a commendable try to shake things up, SF59 is one of those bands that benefits from a little fussiness.
Following that misfire, Martin and company got back on track with The Last Laurel and Talking Voice Vs. Singing Voice. Combining the late night vibe of Leave Here a Stranger with the confident variety of Old, SF59 churn out more of their trademarked pop melancholia. A few new wrinkles turn up, like a horn section, but otherwise there are no surprises, just musicians who know what they’re good at and play to their strengths.
Starflyer 59’s first two albums were re-issued in 2005 with new cover art for both, with She’s the Queen appended to Silver and Le Vainqueur to Gold.
Like The Fashion Focus, My Island shows that Martin is smart enough to kick himself in the ass any time it appears his formula is in danger of getting stale. “The Frontman,” which opens the album, makes it clear that Martin hasn’t given up on the full throttle rock and roll of I Am the Portuguese Blues, but this time he’s determined to get it right. The band deftly mixes aggressive tempos with the usual layering and melodies on a work that rocks out without sacrificing any personality in the process. The addition of Trey Many (His Name Is Alive / Velour100) to the lineup likely accounts for many of the spacier keyboard textures lurking in the dense sonic weave. My Island is a high point in a musical career that has quietly become one of the most consistently rewarding around.
Jason and Ronnie Martin reunite for the first time since the Dance House Children for The Brothers Martin, an attempt to meld the guitar pop of Starflyer 59 with Joy Electric’s vintage synths. The two approaches end up melding seamlessly and give an indication of what the Dance House Children could have become, with an equal division of labor between stringed and keyed instruments. Strangely, the only track billed as a joint composition (the opener, “Communication”) sounds the least like one, coming off like an outtake from My Island, with Ronnie providing burbling electronic color but not much else. Overall, The Brothers Martin is predictably excellent pop music, with Jason’s “Opportunities” and the sparkling “The Plot That Weaves” in particular standing out.
Martin puts his better half back behind the mic for Bon Voyage’s Lies. In contrast to The Right Amount’s homage to ‘60s girl-pop, the prominent synths and generally upbeat rhythms here make Lies a fun new wave throwback. Julie’s pleasant cooing is always enjoyable and Jason effortlessly delivers the goods, tune-wise. The only drawback is that, at less than a half-hour, there isn’t enough of it. Three of the 11 tracks are blatant filler (reprises of earlier cuts and a brief instrumental), and a fourth is a chirpy take on the Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma.” (Putting what might be interpreted as a lesbian spin on a morbidly deadpan song penned by a gay icon and having it released on a predominantly Christian label must makes this some sort of surreal sexual landmark.) If Lies is ultimately a padded-out EP rather than a true album, a little Jason Martin still delivers more pop bliss than a whole lot by most other artists.