For some reason, I found myself reflecting on my “history” with Starflyer 59 when I discovered — a few weeks after the fact — that the band had released Dial M. I picked up their self-titled debut — aka Silver — shortly after it came out in 1994. Which means that I’ve been listening to their music for nearly fifteen years now.
That sort of longevity can lend itself to a sense of obligation, meaning you’ll pick up the artist’s album no matter what. And while such dedication is not a bad thing, it does mean that you have to prepare yourself for inevitable bouts of being underwhelmed (The Cure’s 4:13 Dream immediately comes to mind for me).
Such is not the case with Starflyer 59. There’s a workman-like quality to their music, to be sure. It’s not the sort of music that you listen to for wild innovation and experimentation, but rather to hear the tried and true (the innovation they do inevitably bring is just icing on the cake). For me, Starflyer 59’s music has become akin to an old, comfortable blanket or a sturdy oak desk: dependable and comfortable.
What’s interesting, though, is that Starflyer 59 has achieved that level of consistency despite constant personnel changes and shifts in musical direction throughout the years. Jason Martin has been the band’s single consistent player; at least a dozen others have joined him in the studio and onstage to date. And as for musical direction, Starflyer 59’s releases have dabbled in shoegazer, lounge, surf rock, ‘70s stadium rock, ‘50s pop, and electronica, ultimately settling into a brand of lushly produced indie-rock that incorporates elements from all of those aforementioned genres.
Dial M continues in the same vein as previous recordings like 2005’s Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice and 2001’s Leave Here A Stranger, with Martin’s songwriting as solid and lush as it’s ever been.
“Minor Keys” kicks things off with a punchy rhythm section (courtesy of Velour100’s Trey Many and Project 86’s Steven Dail). Analog synths make their first of many such appearances on the album, and acoustic guitars and strings round things out.
“Concentrate” quickly establishes itself as one of Dial M’s standout tracks. Icy analog synths dominate the track and Martin’s guitar adopts a spectral, 80’s-inflected tone; the song could easily pass for a darker b-side from 2007’s The Brothers Martin project. “M23” begins on a dreamy, Flaming Lips-esque note with scintillating synths before Trey Many’s beat nails things down for Martin’s layered, ever-breathy vocals.
Steven Dail’s hypnotic, undulating bassline provides an interesting counterpoint to the shivering, mournful string sounds on “Automatic” while “Altercation” establishes itself as the album’s most guitar-heavy track, galloping along as Martin’s signature surf-inspired tone adds to the track’s urgency. And “I Love You Like The Little Bird” evokes classic pop with Martin’s delicate and rolling guitar hooks, especially in those nostalgic opening moments.
But as stellar as Dial M is musically, I’m just as intrigued by its lyrics. Martin has never been the most effusive of songwriters; most of his lyrics are pretty basic, especially on the earliest albums, which were dominated by sappy lovesongs. However, age and mortality have had their usual effect, and Dial M finds Martin particularly introspective. On “The Brightest Of The Head”, he laments and confesses the sinful nature:
To live is Christ, to die is gain
I try, I try, I try, and I try
A crooked tongue makes for crooked speech
God forgive what I thought
Forgive what I think
“Mr. Martin” finds Martin turned to his recently deceased father — to whom Dial M is dedicated — for advice on life’s trials and disappointments. And Martin revisits one of his pet topics, the trials and tribulations of being in a rock band, on “I Love You Like The Little Bird”:
No need to remind that scans are unkind a lot of times
But I’ve tried, I’ve tried to write,
What was in my head, what was in my head
Sometimes I feel, I feel so obsolete,
Because the kids want a faster beat
And if I was free, free to leave,
But it’s my kids, they need to eat
And though Martin’s Christianity is quite obvious — every Starflyer 59 album has consistently given thanks to “Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior” — it’s especially so on Dial M, which matches the introspection quite nicely. Martin drops little lyrical bits here and there, culminating on “M23”. Backed by Many’s solid beat and soaring analog synths, Martin sings:
In the twinkling of an eye… of an eye, we’ll rise
So I’ll rely on Christ
In the twinkling of an eye we’ll rise
Which is a fitting lyrical sentiment for an album concerned with both the spiritual and mundane trials of life, and the mortality awaiting us at its end. Combined with the customarily strong songwriting and production, it ultimately makes Dial M yet another fine offering from one of the most reliable and dependable names in music today.