The monochromatic covers are back! When Starflyer 59 first arrived on the scene in the mid-90s, as part of the much-needed Tooth & Nail “revolution” that took Christian music by storm, the only thing as astounding as their music (I still remember the first time “A Housewife Love Song” cleaned out my ears) was the band’s album covers — solid sheets of metallic color that immediately jumped out from the stacks of CCM at the local Family Bookstore.
Silver, Gold, and Americana all featured these blank canvases for covers, with The Fashion Focus breaking the mold, almost as if it symbolized the band’s move towards a fuller, more expansive and (dare I say) orchestral sound. However, it’s very fitting that I Am the Portugese Blues sport one of the older style covers, as in many ways, it’s a regression towards the band’s earlier sound.
The songs that comprise I Am the Portugese Blues were (apparently) recorded during the Americana sessions, shelved, dusted off, and reworked for this album. They are dominated by the big stadium rock sound that the band dabbled with on Americana, and to a lesser extent, Gold. If you’re a fan of that Starflyer era, you’ll love the beefy guitar sounds and swaggering solos that dominate this disc. The band, consisting of Jason Martin on guitars and vocals, long-time associate Jeff Cloud on bass, and Frank Lenz on drums, has rarely sounded this blue collar, economical (clocking in at 27 minutes, the disc contains nary a wasted note), or sure of themselves (noone sounds as confident playing drop-D power chords as Martin).
Unfortunately, the songs often have a rather tossed off feel to them. While the first 3 tracks are certainly carefree enough (if you could ever use terms like “carefree” to describe Starflyer’s music), they often seem rather disposable, not to mention completely interchangeable with eachother (Is this “Unlucky” or “Teens In Love”? Does it even matter?). “Not Funny” kicks off with the ragged guitar and drums you’d expect from, oh, the White Stripes, such that hearing Martin’s voice instead of Jack White’s sneer is a bit jarring. And the instrumental “Sound On Sound” comes off as nothing more than an extended jam the band just kicked out between sessions. While it’s nice to see the band so completely in their element, albums like Leave Here A Stranger have proved that they’re capable of so much more.
That being said, there are moments that do perk up your ears and hold your interest, that leave you wishing they’d spent a bit more time and wrote more stuff like that. “The Big Idea” was the first song I heard off of I Am the Portugese Blues, and is an absolute monster. The guitars hit like sledgehammers, sending sparks flying with each blow, and Cloud’s bass and Lenz’ drums sound like they’re on the verge of rumbling. Meanwhile, Martin affects his best Liam Gallagher impression. “Worth Of Labor” kicks off with Martin whispering “Chik-A-Cha!” over ringing guitars, and his strong sense of melody manifests itself in the guitar line the snakes beneath the bar chords and Lenz’ pummelling drums.
“Destiny” is the album’s strongest moment, with Martin playing as if he’s trying to drive the song’s melody right into the ground. However, a keening, Radiohead-esque guitar line emerges from the wreckage on the chorus, revealing itself to be one of the most jawdropping moments the band has yet recorded. And while we’re on the Radiohead tip, “No Revolution” evokes shades of OK Computer — if Radiohead’s musical treatise on modern alienation had also been part Black Sabbath tribute.
Part of me doesn’t even know why I write about Starflyer 59. Chances are if you’ve heard the band and like them, you don’t need my (or anyone else’s) two cents. Starflyer fans tend to be rather cultish (just peruse the comments on Amazon). However, I can’t help but feel like this is their most inessential album yet.
Bands should remember their past so they can build on it, or even completely betray it for reinvention’s sake, but never to simply rehash it — and that’s the sense I get from much of I Am the Portugese Blues, all bright spots aside. Hopefully, the band is merely using this album as a chance to clear out any baggage from their catalog before continuing on with the growth that has characterized their past couple of albums.