Every new Starflyer 59 album feels like a gift.
It’s been 25 years since Jason Martin wrote “Blue Collar Love,” the opening track on SF59’s astonishing debut album. This is a fact Martin reminds us of on Young in My Head, his band’s 15th (!) long-player, and each time I hear that line, it pulls me up short. I vividly remember discovering the first Starflyer album after stumbling across their entry on a Steve Taylor tribute, and getting lost inside it. The record with the solid silver cover is still a favorite – each time I play it, I forget how thick and powerful those guitar sounds are, and I’m blown away anew.
Martin has taken SF59 through several phases, moving away from the sludgy shoegaze of his earlier records into a more keyboard-driven indie-pop period with stopovers in new wave and straight-up rock. Latter-day Starflyer has been a mix of rock and Cure-like textures, and the new one is no exception. Jason Martin can really write a song, though, and after a quick sojourn with David Bazan in Lo Tom, he’s back here with ten more of them, each one a winner.
True to its title, Young in My Head is about growing old. He begins the album asking “Hey, Are You Listening,” which is a legitimate question 25 years in, and then gives us song after song about life passing by, and about disappointment and despair. In “Cry” he seemingly tries to outrun death: “Now I see it coming, coming behind my back, so I just started running, running to make it last…” “Remind Me,” the song with the “Blue Collar Love” reference, finds Martin lamenting that his time is over: “I had my turn, stayed longer than most, longer than I should have…”
All of this feels like Martin telling us that Young in My Head is the last Starflyer album. But given how good it is, I sincerely hope that isn’t the case. There’s a lot on this album about hanging it up and just being with family – Martin’s 16-year-old son Charlie plays drums on this record – and I would never begrudge him that, if that’s what he wants. But as I listen to the ins and outs of this thing, especially a masterpiece like “Wicked Trick,” I can’t help thinking that the world would be much poorer without new Starflyer 59 records every few years. I hope this isn’t the end, but if it is, it’s a strong last chapter.
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The cover of Jonatha Brooke’s new EP, Imposter, is garish and ridiculous. I hope it sells some copies for her, because the music contained within is her usual wonderful chamber-pop.
This one’s a bit more chamber than usual, too, with a bunch of orchestral players pitching in on strings, horns and flute. You can hear this right away on the title track, as it opens with accordion and violin and its chorus is punctuated with muted trumpets. The song is exactly the kind of melodic beauty that made me fall in love with Brooke in the first place, back in the ‘90s, and I’m so glad she’s still here, doing her thing.
The other four songs are similarly wonderful. “Fire” is a come-and-get-it female anthem with some tongue-twister verses that she handles with ease. “Twilight” brings the flutes in to join the strings on a sweeping acoustic piece about human failings: “I love you, not perfectly, not well, but I love you…” “Revenge” is quieter and happier than its title might indicate, its narrator content to let her rival get the last laugh.
Closer “True to You,” written with the late Joe Sample, is the biggest surprise: an honest-to-God gospel song. Brooke sings it with all her heart, and it’s achingly beautiful. It’s the first one of its kind in her catalog, and she handles this style brilliantly. This is the first album she has made with a grant – she thanks the McKnight Foundation for making the album possible – and I sincerely hope that whatever financial hoops she has to jump through (including crowdfunding, for which I would gladly contribute), Jonatha Brooke keeps making music. She’s wonderful.
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From someone I have loved for 20-plus years to someone I have just discovered.
Natalie Mering records under the name Weyes Blood (it’s a play on “wise blood”), and she’s just released her fourth album. I’m working on getting the previous three, because her new one, Titanic Rising, really does it for me. Her voice has an Aimee Mann quality, her songs have a timeless feel, her album has a grandiose sheen with some delightful ‘70s soft-rock touches. Songs like “Everyday” are right out of Carole King’s playbook.
That’s a lot of references, but then, this is an album about nostalgia. It is inspired not by the actual Titanic, but by Mering’s memories of seeing the movie Titanic in the ‘90s. (She’s 30, so she would have been eight when the movie came out.) “Movies” is the one song that makes this plain, but much of Titanic Rising is about living on a fault line, as she sings in “Something to Believe.” It’s about trying to find love and life knowing that at any time an iceberg could tear it all away.
Yeah, that’s pretty melodramatic, and the album lives up. Most of these songs are piano ballads with big orchestration, there’s an instrumental interlude and a reprise at the end, and songs like the aforementioned “Movies” take their time, building slowly, wave after wave. But this is melodrama that gets under your skin, that feels genuine, that has been lived through. A song like “Picture Me Better” comes from the soul, and there’s no disguising that.
I’m glad to have found Mering and her work, and I’ll be keeping up from now on. Titanic Rising is a strange record, but a lovely one, and I’m finding more to appreciate about it each time I listen.
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In my first draft of this review, I opined that Weyes Blood is at the exact opposite end of the musical spectrum from Sunn O))). But that’s not really true.
I don’t mean to imply that they sound alike – they don’t, at all. But both Natalie Mering and the two core members of Sunn O))) use broad canvases to create massive emotional music. The emotions aren’t even all that different – Sunn O))) music conveys a sense of living under a shadow, of something bigger than we can comprehend coming to change everything. In Mering’s case it’s an iceberg, in Sunn O)))’s case, it sounds to me like a dying star.
Their eighth album is called Life Metal, and I love that title. It’s a nice swipe at death metal, and an indication of their intentions: to make something brighter and less doom-y while keeping the Sunn O))) sound intact. That sound features guitars that sound bigger than anything you’ve ever heard, and a complete disregard for rhythm and melody, and those elements are still here. But they’ve enlisted cellists and vocalists and synth players to fill this out and give it more of an energized feel.
I think I might have been expecting a greater departure from this thing, but the changes they have made are more textural than alchemical. Life Metal contains four long drones, the longest, “Novae,” coming in at more than 25 minutes, and the always-mighty guitars are at the center. It’s engrossing, wrapping you up in a rarely-changing river of sound. I understand this is just the first of two Steve Albini-recorded albums coming this year, and if the second one is more of the same, I won’t be surprised. Sunn O))) has done the thing they do very well for 20 years now, and Life Metal is another sterling example of it.
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I’ve been listening to all of the above, but if you asked me to pick the one record I’ve been obsessed with lately, it’s Jandek’s The Ray.
I’ve mentioned Jandek a few times here in the past, and I’m gearing up to write a full-on examination of all of his work, since I find it endlessly fascinating. Jandek is a limited musician with no limits – he isn’t trained, he has developed his own style based on not really being able to play instruments with any classical ability, but he’s produced one of the most expansive and artistically restless catalogs I’ve ever encountered. That catalog numbers 94 albums now, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
Thirty-eight of those albums are live recordings, performed with a variety of musicians around the world. The Representative from Corwood (we believe the man at the center of the Jandek project is named Sterling Smith, but there has been no official confirmation of that) surrounds himself with people willing to roll with his improvisational vibe, and I’ve been deeply impressed with his willingness to try various musical guises. We’ve had country Jandek, jazz Jandek, disco Jandek, funk Jandek, incredibly loud noise-rock Jandek and folksy Jandek, and I know he’s Jandeked up other styles in concerts that haven’t been released on CD yet.
For five years, this is all we’ve been getting. Jandek released 17 live albums between 2015 and 2019, and considering that this is a guy who recorded for 26 years without playing live or giving any interviews, that’s shocking. I’d resigned myself to never hearing another Jandek studio album again, which of course means he surprised me with one.
I’ve never been much for the mystery of Jandek – I think the music is fascinating enough on its own – but the sudden appearance of The Ray set me thinking. When I buy an album these days, I know a lot about it, usually. I’ll know the track listing, the length of the record, usually the length of the songs, who produced the album, who plays on it, and generally what I should expect from it. Normally I’ll have heard one or two songs and read a review or two. Not so with Jandek releases. He still runs his own label and website, and when I buy a new Jandek record, especially a studio one, I only know the title and what the cover looks like. That’s it. There’s an excitement that comes along with having no idea what you’re about to get, and Jandek is the only artist who truly delivers that for me right now.
What does The Ray sound like? It’s a single hour-long track that I have been describing as an acid-rock nightmare. There are drums and bass and at least two guitars. The song is a thick, slow dirge, performed as if the players were all in separate rooms. (My theory is that this one is entirely the Rep, oberdubbing himself.) Atop all of this, the Rep intones a poem about love and loss in his inimitable, atonal style. I wouldn’t call it chaotic, but it does feel like disparate parts forming a weird tunnel of sound. I’ve made it all the way through once, and I’m not sure when I will have the time and patience to do so again.
But it’s utterly fascinating. I know of no one else who would make a record like this one. I’m not even sure making a record like this one is anything to aspire to. But I remain happy to have found the one person on the planet who would make a record like this one, and who continues, against all reason, to create this stuff and share it with the world.
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That’s it for this week, and for April. Next week, something much shorter. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.