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Tooth and Nail Records
34 minutes / 10 tracks
Two years and a special preview vinyl release later, Dial M emerges as the eleventh full-length of the prolific Christian indie rock band Starflyer 59. They're still on Tooth and Nail; promotion is still scant, with fans dredging through the web for any scrap of info, previews, reviews, or audio clips that can be found; the larger sphere of secular/indie music is still likely to pass it over. Besides the sounds on the disc, Dial M is a new Starflyer 59 release by the numbers: bought and loved by the loyal fan base, criminally unnoticed by most everyone else.
Dial M's first impression is that of a minor comeback. Ever since 2004's I Am the Portuguese Blues, it's felt like an uphill climb for Starflyer 59 to reassert the confidence they built within fans by delivering album after album of consistently solid material. Portuguese Blues was a throwback to the band's earliest releases, at least on the surface, but it was the first time Starflyer 59 ever sounded second-rate. Though they quickly resumed the forward march with Talking Voice Vs. Singing Voice in 2005, Starflyer's output ever since has failed to reach the same high tier as before.
If Dial M still doesn't immediately break to the same height as their classic material, it at least does much to erase any doubts whether Jason Martin's still got it or not. Dig the album's first single, "The Brightest of the Head", boasting a xylophone-led, humorously faux-pedestrian melody over a never-ending thunderclap drum beat, and some of the most patently Christian lyrics Martin's penned: "to live is Christ, to die is gain." "Concentrate" is a noir-synth dance-rock track that strongly recalls but completely blows away the material he penned for The Bros. Martin project last year. "Who Said It's Easy?" follows in Starflyer's tradition as pensive-song-number-four, until it shockingly slows the pace down halfway through via a bridge blanketed with strings, providing the album's most atmospheric moment. "M23" and "Automatic" con with the firearm wordplay as the two most transparent and sensitive tracks lyrically on Dial M, with the possible exception of "Mr. Martin" later on, one of the most acoustically driven songs ever released by the band.
Though marginally longer than their two previous albums, Dial M feels noticeably short. This is especially frustrating considering the several other songs included in last year's vinyl preview Ghosts of the Future that failed to make the cut. Though the aim of a perfect, filler-free pop album is appreciated, the brevity of their past several albums, now including Dial M, feels favorable no longer. Instead, as a slight amend to Dial M's own short length, we have "Magic," a sublime bonus track available on the vinyl release or as a download through iTunes. It's a gorgeous pop song and is absolutely worth downloading.
There's no escaping the colorless drawl of Jason Martin's vocals, but they're as rich and impressive as they will probably ever become on Dial M. They sit comfortably atop the dark, layered soundscapes here and work as the album's focal point, as Martin drops several references that play up Dial M's classic-noir/80's-pop theme, from playwright Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" to The Smiths founder Johnny Marr, in addition to the Hitchcock-derived album title. These lyrics are improved greatly compared to other recent albums, but they're still Starflyer 59's weakest point. The self-debasing mood is copied for nearly every song, becoming at least faintly repetitive by Dial M's end.
But even with its questionable areas, Dial M still provides a great, addictive set of ten new pop/rock songs. It's their best effort since Old, reaffirms fans' hopes that Starflyer 59 still has new places to go and great music to craft, and might even prove a favorite for terrifying fundamentalist Christian indie pop/rock album of the year.
Jonathan Avants 12/7/08
One of the beauties of Starflyer 59 is its unity in diversity. It seems as if sf59 main man Jason Martin and whoever's surrounding him on any given long player have the period of England's musical development from post-punk to Britpop (roughly 1978-1998) as a template. How they cherry pick and recombine those influences within any given album--and maybe how up-front the vocals are--form the basis for the surprises.
On Dial M, Martin sounds to be indulging his jones for The Smiths, going so far as to lyrically reference guitarist Johnny Marr in the opening "Minor Keys," but I'm likewise hearing some Blur, The The, The Bluebells (token Scots?) and not coming to my mind but whose whose 7-inchers from the above-mentioned vintage Martin likely has in his import vinyl collection, all suffused with a generous dollop of Daniels Amos. The last influence is at least apparent in Martin's current seemingly heightened vocal resemblance to DA's Terry Taylor. And yes, DA's from California, not England, but considering their humongous indebtedness to The Beatles, it all comes back to the Brits, doesn't it?
Anyway, for those not conversant with the aforementioned acts apart from Amos and the Fab Four, that is to say that SF59 here dabbles in guitar textures ranging from mellowly tremulous to enervatingly buzz sawed, an occasional string arrangement, synths that sound like accordions and actual synths, a little sweatlessly funky disco-rock and the blissful melodicism Martin has been composing for at least 14 years.
And, oh yeah, melancholy. That's another defining characteristic of sf59's catalog, and its quotient may be higher than usual considering that Dial M is dedicated to Martin's recently deceased father. With that fact in mind, Martin's quotation of Philippians 1:21 in "The Brightest of the Head" and "M25"'s mention of the rapture of the Christian faithful strike an especially resonant chord. The album's last two songs, "Mr. Martin" and "I Love You Like The Little Bird," sound to be dovetailing into an elegy and eulogy for the demands of a musician dad with children to feed and a father responsible for giving the world such a musician.
Counterbalancing the sadness are fits of frustration, most audible in the album's more overtly danceable numbers, such as "Concentrate" and "Automatic." That the frustration sounds to be at least as much self-directed as outwardly so befits the humility apparent throughout sf59's history.
And lastly, get an eyeful of the art direction. Fans of movies and radio of a certain vintage should know the classic title the name of sf59's latest OS referencing, and it all comes together beautifully through the use of deco-styled fonts and the CD looking like a stylized telephone rotary dial wheel (it has me wondering what the packaging of the 12" vinyl looks like).
Even if the second half sounds just a tad overly Smiths derivative at times, Dial M continues a winning streak for a band that one might rightly wonder about why their cult following hasn't blown up into a few gold albums for Starflyer 59 by now.
Jamie Lee Rake December 27, 2008