The most defining aspect of Jason Martin’s songwriting is its reliable, workman-like quality. That may sound like faint praise, but as I wrote in my review of 2016’s Slow, “[r]ather than waste time trying to push envelopes or break boundaries, Martin simply focuses on writing good songs with solid hooks and catchy melodies — and for more than two decades, his unassuming ‘blue collar’ approach has resulted in an impressively consistent and reliable discography.”
On April 26, Starflyer 59 release their fifteenth album, Young In My Head. As is his wont, the album finds Jason Martin reminiscing and waxing nostalgic about his youth, his family, and of course, his music. So in keeping with that spirit, I’ve put together a list of 15 of my favorite Starflyer 59 songs, listed in chronological order by year of release.
What will become quickly apparent across all these songs is that regardless of the album or era — be it the 1994 debut’s syrupy-thick shoegaze, the orchestral pop of 2001’s Leave Here a Stranger, or the ’80s-influenced rock of 2013’s IAMACEO and 2016’s Slow — Jason Martin always sounds like Jason Martin. Like all of his beloved influences, it’s virtually impossible to mistake a Starflyer 59 song for anyone else’s.
Here’s where it all began. I bought Starflyer 59’s self-titled debut, aka, the Silver album, after reading a review in an issue of CCM Magazine that included references to Swervedriver and The Boo Radleys. I had only recently discovered shoegaze, and the fact that a Christian band was being compared to them (and in the pages of CCM Magazine to boot)… it seemed too good to be true. While not as explosive as Loveless’ opening onslaught, “Blue Collar Love“ ‘s sludgy guitar chords and cavernous drums nonetheless blew me away and I’d soon spend the rest of the summer listening to Silver on a nigh-obsessive basis.
Released on the She’s the Queen EP (which included various b-sides, as well as a Joy Electric remix of “Blue Collar Love”), “Salinas” fits in well with the droney, sludgy sound that made Silver so good, courtesy of the producing unit Blood (which consisted of Mortal’s Jyro and Jerome, and Mark Rodriguez). But “Salinas” is no mere filler or toss-off material; it easily holds its own against any album tracks, thanks to some cool guitar dynamics and a jazzy little drum shuffle.
Full disclaimer: If I was pressed to name my favorite Starflyer 59 album, I’d probably have to go with their sophomore album, Gold. (How much did I dig it back in the way? For starters, I spent several days painstakingly deciphering its lyrics and then typing them up in a campus computer lab to share in an internet newsgroup.) Jason Martin self-produced Gold, and aimed for a “classic rock” sound inspired by the likes of Journey, Black Sabbath, and The Beach Boys. I don’t know how successful that was, but I do know this: “Duel Overhead Cam“ ‘s overdriven, feedback-laden climax is a thing of eardrum-rupturing beauty.
By all accounts, the recording of Gold was a grueling process that found Martin basically locked in the studio for a month and on the verge of a breakdown. Compared to Silver, Gold is dark and bleak with dirge-like songs and mope-filled lyrics. (Think of it as Starflyer 59’s Pornography). Martin hated it upon completion, considering it to be over-indulgent. And he wasn’t entirely wrong, especially on a song like “When You Feel the Mess” that stretches on to nearly seven minutes and is filled with seemingly endless guitar soloing. But that same over-indulgence also gives the song, and by extension, the rest of Gold, a sense of ambition and singular focus that’s quite unlike anything else in Starflyer 59’s discography. And as for that aforementioned soloing… well, it sounds pretty good when you’re lying on the floor feeling all “messed up and down” (to reference another Gold song). Trust me, I know from personal experience.
Several years ago, I did a running Twitter commentary while listening to Gold, and when I got to “Indiana,” I tweeted “Back in the day, if you were a girl that I had a crush on, then you probably got a mixtape with ‘Indiana’ on it.” Long after first listening to Gold, I learned that it was not, in fact, about Jason moping over some girl, but rather, about missing long-lost friends. Still, when I heard him sing “Stay these days and you will find/All the hurting here will die/Be better when you’re mine,” how was I not supposed to interpret those lyrics through the lens of my own girl-related woes and put the song on a mixtape? (Because that’s obviously the best way to communicate your feelings to whomever you’re crushing on.) And then there’s Martin’s guitars, which break your heart in two with those note bends during the solos, only to slip right back into “dreamy reverb” mode with no discernible effort.
When Jason Martin set out to record Americana, he was determined to not repeat the same mistakes of the Gold sessions, namely that he wouldn’t do everything himself. And so he brought in Adam Again’s Gene Eugene and The Prayer Chain’s Wayne Everett and Eric Campuzano to help with the album’s production. The resulting album has been called Starflyer 59’s “metal” album. I don’t know about that, but Americana does have an arena rock-like swagger that stands in stark contrast to Gold’s moroseness. “The Hearttaker” even benefits from swirling Moog sounds, proof that Martin was beginning to open up Starflyer’s sonic palette.
The late ’90s were a prolific period for Starflyer 59, with Martin and various collaborators releasing albums on a yearly basis. As if picking up momentum from Americana, Martin continued to deconstruct the typical Starflyer 59 sound on 1998’s The Fashion Focus with the help of Gene Eugene. “I Drive a Lot,” for instance, places as much emphasis on dreamy keyboards and propulsive drums as it does guitars, and Martin’s voice is more front-and-center, though still plenty breathy as he daydreams “Think of things I’d be/With time to kill and just had lots of money.”
In recent years, Jason Martin’s songwriting has grown increasingly short and sweet. Most of the songs on Starflyer 59’s last few albums barely cross the three-minute mark. But if I’m honest, part of me does miss when Martin would launch into full-on “epic guitar god” mode, which he does quite well on “Too Much Fun,” The Fashion Focus’ penultimate track. For nearly eight minutes, Martin rips one searing riff after another from the guts of his guitar, while bending his strings into near oblivion in the process, and it’s pretty darn bitchin.
Two words: orchestra hit. When my friend Nolan and I first listened to Everybody Makes Mistakes and heard the orchestra hit on this song’s chorus, we both broke into really dopey grins. The orchestra hit was so cheesy, and yet it sounded so perfect alongside the song’s synths, Martin’s trademark reverb-laden riffs, and Wayne Everett’s shuffling, off-kilter drumming. There’s always been an ’80s influence in Starflyer’s music, and the orchestra hit just nailed it even more. Orchestra hits often seem like a joke, but they can add a certain epic-ness to songs (e.g., New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire”) that’s as earnest as it is tongue-in-cheek. I like to imagine that Jason Martin et al. were messing around in the studio late one night, threw in the orchestra hit as a joke, and then — after laughing about it for a few minutes — realized that it was precisely what “No New Kinda Story” needed.
2001’s Leave Here a Stranger was Jason Martin’s homage to The Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds album; he even recorded it in mono with the help of producer Terry Taylor (a Christian music icon thanks to Daniel Amos and The Swirling Eddies, and one of Martin’s musical heroes). “All My Friends Who Play Guitar” is one of Martin’s most ambitious and epic-sounding songs, thanks to the song’s swirling arrangements. Which is kind of ironic since the song’s lyrics touch on one of Martin’s pet topics: his frustrations and ambivalence about being in a band. (Sample lyric: “So this is what you do for a name/You wanna waste your life in a country and fly around on a plane.”)
One thing that I’ve always liked about Starflyer 59’s music is how deceptive it is. On the one hand, there’s nothing really flashy about it — Martin has long talked about how he likes to stick with the same riffs and chord progressions — but on the other hand, there are plenty of surprises if you listen close enough. Take, for example, “Easy Street,” which starts off like any other Starflyer 59 song, with Martin’s dry vocals and reverbed, surf-tinged guitar tones. And then, during the second verse, some strings emerge and then the pièce de résistance: an honest-to-goodness trumpet solo courtesy of Matt Fronke. On paper, it seems like a little thing, but it adds so much. (And don’t even get me started on the vocoder in the song’s final moments…)
Prior to releasing 2008’s Dial M, Jason Martin released The Brothers Martin, which saw him making an album with his brother, Ronnie Martin (Joy Electric) for the first time since Dance House Children’s Jesus. It’s hard not to imagine that collaboration inspiring “Concentrate,” one of the most synth-heavy tracks in Starflyer 59’s catalog. Martin’s synths buzz and swirl over and against angular, Franz Ferdinand-y guitar riffs and stomping rhythms, with the result being a catchy post-punk track that contains nods towards his brother’s synth-pop (particularly during the bridge).
It’s not too hard to argue that nostalgia has been the dominant theme in Starflyer 59’s recent albums, whether it’s Jason Martin reflecting on his youth, the early days of being a musician, or his marriage and family. So it’s no surprise that he would eventually write a song titled “Time Machine” where he — you guessed it — regrets the passage of time (“Those pictures/They cause me to think about my life/Passing by/And I can’t do a thing to stop time from moving”). But Martin’s mopery doesn’t hamper the song, which is plenty dreamy thanks to the synths that drift alongside Martin’s inimitable riffs and straightforward vocals.
After nearly 20 years with Tooth & Nail Records, Jason Martin decided to go independent for 2013’s IAMACEO, which was entirely funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign. Released on Jason Martin’s 40th birthday, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the album’s best song, “Red Tide,” is fixated on mortality, as Martin struggles to maintain faith in light of sorrow and loss (“So I fold my hands and then I pray/The streets of gold, the pearly gates/The doctor says, ‘It don’t look good’/And we all cried in the waiting room”). Musically, this song has some obvious New Order-isms (e.g., the chiming guitars, the synth outro), but the song’s sincere emotional heft elevates it far above some mere homage. Indeed, it’s one of the most emotionally affecting songs in the Starflyer 59 discography.
Arguably my favorite song from Starflyer 59’s recent output, “Wrongtime” evokes The Cure’s early post-punk sound (e.g., Seventeen Seconds, A Head on the Door) without ever really sounding like Robert Smith et al. It’s an absolute rocker of a song, stripped down to the barest essence, thanks in large part to Steven Dail and Trey Many’s propulsive rhythm section. Meanwhile, Martin sends his guitar ricocheting all over the place while waxing gloomily about nostalgia and death, as is his wont (“Your death is on my list/The many things that I’d like to fix/But I can’t go back, can’t go home/I can’t see you anymore”).
For an excellent overview of Starflyer 59’s career, I highly recommend this piece by Michial Farmer (even if I disagree with his assessment of Gold and Dial M). And I was very thankful to find this essay by J. Edward Keyes that appeared in the liner notes for the Easy Come Easy Go compilation; it helped fill in some blanks for the band’s earliest days circa Gold and Americana.