I’m always on about little labels and little bands that show faith in each other. It’s been my position that the next best thing, in this internet-savvy new world, to putting your own stuff out there is to find a label run by music fans. I’m talking about the organizations that care more about the artistry than the sales figures – or rather, that see the artistry as the primary concern, believing that sales will follow if the music and packaging are done right. I’m talking about labels that stick with low-selling yet adored bands, letting them make the records they want to make and giving them the full benefit of their design and marketing expertise.
And when I’m talking about that, the name Tooth and Nail Records always pops into my head. Tooth and Nail is a group out of Washington that started a little more than 10 years ago, but in that time, they’ve developed the template for the modern artist-friendly independent record label. One thing that’s clear after their first decade – the Tooth and Nail team believes in developing artists, in standing by them and letting them evolve. But they also take great care of the unknowns, the new bands that sign to their family.
Here’s a look at one of each.
I first heard Starflyer 59 on, of all things, a tribute album to little-known satirist Steve Taylor. They did a track called “Sin for a Season,” originally a clean-guitar mood piece, in low tones and huge walls of distortion. Early Starflyer built such fortresses out of their guitars that they really didn’t sound like guitars at all, and the effect was like drowning in concrete. Their self-titled debut from 1994 was the third-ever release on Tooth and Nail, and Starflyer has stuck with the label ever since.
Starflyer 59 is the brainchild of Jason Martin, who one day will be recognized as the pop genius he undoubtedly is. When I reviewed Old, their 2003 album, I remarked that since each Starflyer album is so radically different from the last, each one is in some way their best album. Well, that still holds, but sit down, kids, because their just-released ninth record, Talking Voice Vs. Singing Voice, might just be their best album overall, by any criteria. It’s certainly a huge step up from both Old (which was borderline marvelous) and their last one, I Am the Portuguese Blues (which was not).
In fact, Portuguese Blues, a collection of new recordings of old songs, now seems like the stopgap it probably was. Talking Voice is the real deal, a massively melancholy affair full of Cure influences and gorgeous layers of beautiful sound. Martin produced it with Frank Lenz, the only other credited band member this time out, and he obviously learned his lessons working with the likes of Terry Taylor, Gene Eugene and Aaron Sprinkle. Sonically, I can’t think of a Starflyer album I like more than this one.
But how are the songs? Well, this should be no surprise to Starflyer fans, but they’re fantastic. Most of the tracks creep and crawl like spiders, spinning their eerie textures into dark webs. The opener, “The Contest Completed,” crashes in on a patented Martin guitar chime, an insistent bass line, and a sweeping, Disintegration-era Cure-style synth squall. The chorus is pure Martin, though, strengthened by the deep melancholy of his baritone voice. The obvious single, “Good Sons,” bops along delightfully, and smoothly eases into a chorus that won’t leave you alone.
You can spend days just listening to the sounds of this record. Martin and Lenz employed a string section, which Lenz arranged, and the violins and violas come to the fore on the great “A Lists Go On,” “Softness, Goodness” and “A Good Living.” Dig the trumpet on “Easy Street,” too. The Starflyer boys are just as imaginative with the tones when they’re working with just guitars, too – dig the chiming notes on “Something Evil,” or the slippery clean tones on “Night Life.”
This is an immaculately crafted album of superb songs, and in fact my only complaint with it is the same one I have every time Starflyer puts something out – it’s too short. Talking Voice is nine songs in 32 minutes, and I wanted more as soon as it was over. Martin is remarkably prolific – he’s released three albums and an EP in the last two years – but each of his projects is tiny. You could fit Talking Voice, Portuguese Blues and the Last Laurel EP all on one disc. This is a minor complaint, of course, since Martin doesn’t release any filler tracks. His 30-minute albums are all solid, and probably just the right length, in retrospect. I just want more of his work, is all.
As I said before, Starflyer has hung in there with Tooth and Nail since the beginning, and the label has stuck with them, seemingly letting Martin do pretty much whatever he wants. (They have a similar deal with his brother, Ronnie, the mastermind of long-running electronic pop act Joy Electric.) Nine albums, four EPs and a box set later, the arrangement obviously has worked out for both of them, and Starflyer’s first four releases are the subjects of the first Tooth and Nail remasters, slated for later this year. They are the label’s signature band, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue their partnership with Tooth and Nail until one of them calls it a day.
A new band could do a lot worse than signing on with a label that develops artists the way T&N has developed Starflyer. Just ask Virginia Beach quintet Mae – their second album, The Everglow, is the talk of their label’s website. It’s the follow-up to Destination: Beautiful, a left-field wonder full of hooks and surprising musicianship, and one of the most memorable modern rock records I’ve heard in ages.
I’m surprised at myself for being such a fan of this band, since I usually don’t buy into the pop/punk/emo thing, but Mae transcends those sorts of labels. You could hear them on the radio with the likes of Good Charlotte and Dashboard Confessional, but they have so much more going on musically than pretty much any other similar band I’ve heard. Part of the secret is that they’ve refused to go full-bore into any one aspect of their sound – they are pop/punk/emo/ambient/rock, and they don’t identify fully with any of those. They just write good songs, record them well with interesting arrangements, and leave the categories to the critics.
The Tooth and Nail design department knocked themselves out with The Everglow’s package – it’s designed like a children’s book, with illustrations and a slipcase. Everything about this album screams “major, serious work,” from the lovely cover art to the foil-embossed booklet, but luckily, the record itself is as much fun as Mae’s debut. The guitars are a bit louder, the songs are a bit longer, but overall, little has changed. The Everglow is another hook-packed collection of winners, with some surprising moments, and no bum tracks.
I admit to worrying a bit at the beginning. The “Prologue” is funny, but piano ballad “We’re So Far Away” is a little trite, and “Someone Else’s Arms” is more normal-rock than I’m used to from Mae. The new version of “Suspension” (it was originally on their b-sides record) de-emphasizes the kinetic lead guitar, too, which was my favorite part. But with track five, “This is the Countdown,” the album takes off and never looks back. That song features a killer chorus, a neat clean-guitar section, and a classic piano break. It’s a monster hit in the making.
From there, as The Everglow unspools, it just keeps building, vaulting from track to track as if the band can’t wait to show you what they’ve come up with. There’s no instant classic like “This Time is the Last Time” here, but overall, the record is deeper and better than its predecessor. “Painless” explodes with a prog-style piano figure and a stop-time chorus that takes a couple of listens to wrap your brain around. “Breakdown” marries pounding piano with a cool, unexpected bass line and an infectious “woah-oh” melody, but it’s the acoustic guitar midsection that packs the punch. And “Mistakes We Knew We Were Making” (a nifty Dave Eggers reference) gets my vote for best track, with its odd time signature and subtle yet lovely percussion.
The album concludes with another inescapable pop song (“Anything”) and a seven-minute float-a-thon (“The Sun and the Moon”) unlike anything they’ve tried. But they pull it off, all pianos and harmonies, capping a wide-eyed, romantic album that cements Mae’s rep as a band to watch. If you don’t like anything that sounds like MTV, then Mae might not be for you, but if you love to hear the potential in a style (or four) really explored by quality musicians, then try this. The Everglow is one of my favorite records of the year so far, energetic and bright and hooky and just plain good. This should be on every modern rock station in the country.
Both the Starflyer and Mae records are testaments to what artists can do in supportive environments, when they are left to follow their own visions. On many other labels, Starflyer might have been shown the door years ago, and Mae might have been “asked” to pick one demographic and stick with it. Tooth and Nail sees the artistic value in records like these, and they’ve earned my respect and support. I may not like everything they do, but I love them for doing it the way they do.
End love letter. Special thanks to Jim Worthen for hooking me on Mae. Next week, Bill Mallonee and/or Garbage. After that, Ben Folds, Eels, Aimee Mann, Ryan Adams, and the Choir.
See you in line Tuesday morning.