So of course, the Fiery Furnaces waited until I was finished with my review of their new album last week before making what I believe is the weirdest announcement of their career.
Yes, weirder than that “Democ-Rock” thing they tried, where they posted insane descriptions of what the next Furnaces album might sound like, and asked fans to vote for their favorite. And yes, weirder than their plan to release twin solo projects this year, each a song-for-song cover/deconstruction of the band’s new record, I’m Going Away. You ready for this?
The next Fiery Furnaces album will be a silent record. Really.
It’s apparently a protest – “Since bands can no longer sell audio,” the press release reads, “FF refuse to provide it.” It’s not clear whether they believe that file-sharing has killed the notion of selling recorded music, but the concept of their silent album is actually pretty cool. They’ve written a bunch of songs, and they will release them as sheet music. Then, they will help arrange concerts, at which local musicians will play the songs on Silent Record any way they wish. It sounds to me like a new way of getting their songs out there, and engaging their audience at the same time.
Of course, as soon as these concerts start happening, bootleg recordings of them will no doubt surface, feeding the very file-sharing networks the band is opposing. But the idea is interesting. Another potential hitch: Matthew Friedberger’s songs are notoriously difficult to play. Will these makeshift bands get the songs right? Will that matter? No word on whether we’ll ever get a “definitive” recording of the songs on Silent Record (or even if such a concept applies in this case).
Naturally, there’s also no word on whether this will actually happen. But of all the crazy ideas the Furnaces have had, I like this one the best.
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A friend and I were talking about the Dead Weather last week, and he asked an interesting question: does Jack White hold the record right now for the musician leading the most current bands? He’s masterminding three – the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather – and he treats all of them like his main gig. It’s an interesting question – I could think of a few, like Tim Kasher (Cursive, The Good Life) and Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys, The Last Shadow Puppets) juggling two, but none taking on three at once.
A day or so later, it hit me: Jason Martin.
Not only is Martin the singer/songwriter/leading light behind the long-running Starflyer 59 (15 years and counting), he juggles a number of other going concerns. He writes and plays all the instruments for Bon Voyage, with his wife Julie – their third album Lies, out last year, was very good. He works with his brother Ronnie in The Brothers Martin, though time will tell if that’s more than a side project.
And he’s (somewhat secretly) a main member of Neon Horse, an anonymous rock band that reared its head last year. Like Gorillaz, the members of Neon Horse hide behind cartoon analogues, in this case looking like the cast of Deadwood done up animation style. In reality, it’s a collaboration between Martin and Mark Salomon of Stavesacre, whose voice is simply unmistakable. Their sound is junkyard ‘80s, with sloppy kickass guitars and plastic synths backing up Salomon’s affected howl. Their self-titled debut was 30 minutes of high-speed awesome, Martin stretching out on guitar in ways I’d never really heard before.
The second Neon Horse album is pretty much the same, but this one has a much cooler title: Haunted Horse: Songs of Love, Defiance and Delusion. It is, once again, 30 minutes of non-stop rock, although this one is even more ‘80s – the synths are more prominent, the melodies more Devo. But the attitude remains the same. Under his Norman Horse persona, Salomon whoops and snarls all over these songs. He’s much more restrained and precise in Stavesacre, but here, he’s like a madman. The first four songs on this album rush by in 10 minutes, Salomon a whirling dervish atop the din.
Martin has experimented with jagged guitar lines in Starflyer, but I’ve never heard him play like he does in Neon Horse. Loud, angular, just ripping – check out “Follow the Man,” the riff-heavy explosion at track four. The main guitar line is pure trash-rock, the chorus is awesome, and the Jim Morrison-style breakdown section is well-placed. “Yer Busy Little Beehive” drives forward on Martin’s synths, while “Strange Town” combines his strengths, the propulsive guitar riffs augmented by droning keys. But there’s nothing clinical about this music – it’s all just full-on fun.
Lyrically, Neon Horse is very worried about you. “Strange Town” is similar to Poison’s “Fallen Angel,” and a million songs of its ilk – it’s about lost innocence, about “shadows grow(ing) under street lights in a strange town.” “Follow the Man” finds Salomon pleading for a prostitute’s salvation, and “Chain Gang Bang Bang” follows a line of miserable souls off a cliff. The whole album balances the seamy, dirty music Neon Horse makes with a fatherly, almost spiritual sensibility. (Except “Cell-o-Phone.” That one’s about an annoying person who calls too much.)
But if you’re not looking for the shafts of light, you’ll never notice them. Haunted Horse is a sleazeball rock record with a pure heart, and if you think they can’t do both, you haven’t heard it. Neon Horse is like the logical extreme of Starflyer’s New Wave material, and at the same time, it’s like nothing Jason Martin’s ever done. It’s sexy-cool-fun, and just long enough at half an hour. Long may this Horse ride.
What of Martin’s main gig, you ask? Don’t worry, you can get double your Martin fix this week, in the form of Starflyer 59’s two-disc collection Ghosts of the Past. These 100 minutes serve as a victory lap and an anniversary celebration, collecting all of the non-album tracks from the last five years. But it’s not just an odds-and-sods compilation, bringing together as it does all of the A- and B-sides from last year’s Ghosts of the Future 7-inch series.
Ghosts of the Future was a 10-record set recorded and released during the run-up to Starflyer’s 11th album, Dial M. The A-sides were demo versions of the 10 songs that appeared on that album, while the B-sides were all exclusive new tunes and covers. The 20 tunes are arranged in order, each B-side following its A-side, so it’s like listening to the box set in sequence. The whole thing is an ‘80s-inspired festival of reverbed guitar and wondrous melodies.
The demos are stripped-down, of course, but they sound complete to my ears, and some of these arrangements beat out the more colorful ones on Dial M. Ghosts of the Past kicks off with “Automatic,” here just bass, drums and violin, and the bare-bones arrangement adds immeasurable atmosphere. The focus is on Martin’s low-key, low-register voice, which sounds as great as ever. “Concentrate” is much less propulsive here, more keyboard-driven, and I think this version is the equal of that on Dial M.
It’s the B-sides, though, that make this an essential purchase. Martin pairs “Minor Keys,” which references the Smiths, with a subdued cover of “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want.” He backs “Easy” with “Spooky,” a dark and lovely instrumental. The acoustic version of “Mr. Martin” is a lot closer to what made the record, while the electrified version here is revelatory. Martin covers Bread’s “Guitar Man,” then teams up with David Bazan for “Broken Arm,” a song that makes me want to hear more from this unlikely team-up.
The second disc of Ghosts is more spotty, bringing together B-sides from Starflyer’s three recent EPs. These are definitely second-tier Martin songs, for the most part, although instrumental “White Fog” is a standout. But the three tunes from last year’s Minor Keys EP are terrific – acoustic takes on two Dial M songs, followed by a majestic cover of the Church’s “Under the Milky Way.”
The whole thing is rounded off with “Magic,” a bonus track from the vinyl version of Dial M. Easily the best thing on disc two, “Magic” probably should have made the album proper, but it ties things up nicely here. “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it don’t,” Martin sings, over a breezy acoustic strum and a galloping drum beat. The magic works far more often than it doesn’t on Ghosts of the Past – it’s not only a collection of missing pieces for the Starflyer fan, it’s a fine overview of where Martin’s been over the past half-decade. If this is your first Starflyer 59 album, you’ll want to hear more. What else can you ask for?
As always, Jason Martin’s music is out on Tooth and Nail Records, and their commitment to his work is commendable. Both Jason and his brother Ronnie, who is Joy Electric, have been on Tooth and Nail since the early ‘90s, and they’re both prolific, low-selling artists with small yet dedicated followings. I’m always grateful to T&N for allowing both Martins to flourish creatively for as long as they have. I, for one, have enjoyed every minute of it.
See you in line Tuesday morning.