Starflyer 59: Talking Voice vs Singing Voice (Tooth and Nail, 2005)

by Brent

Starflyer 59 Talking Voice vs Singing VoiceIt seems like I’ve been waiting a LONG time for Starflyer 59’s Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice. Granted, over the past year, the band has released a critically acclaimed EP, The Last Laurel, and even a fun loud rock distraction in I am the Portuguese Blues. Not too long prior to that, the band had released a hyped full-length, complete with an all-star line-up, Old. Yet, even in those releases, along with the two prior releases Can’t Stop Eating and Leave Here a Stranger, something seemed to be missing from the Starflyer 59 sound that I’d been hoping I’d hear again. And this is where this review is woefully subjective, because most music fans find nothing but orchestrated pop beauty in Leave Here a Stranger. I understand that sentiment. Yet, for me, Jason Martin and his ever revolving cast of guest musicians have not sounded as fresh or inspired to my ears since the dark pop of 1999’s Everybody Makes Mistakes. Maybe I’m wrong in this, but all subjective analyses aside, Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice presents perhaps the most consistent collection of Martin’s songs ever, and coupled with some wonderful choices of production and arrangements by he and bandmate Frank Lenz, the CD ends up being a scrumptious listen of slightly dreamy, moody pop.

The overall mood of Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice is dark and wistful, taking a cue from the aforementioned Everybody Makes Mistakes. In the place of the synths that have dominated the band’s recent efforts are the inclusion of real live strings, beautifully arranged by Lenz. Martin’s signature guitar leads are as muted and buried as they’ve ever been, and are conspicuously subtle when compared with other Starflyer 59 releases. However, Martin’s are clear, confident, and even varied, a far cry from his barely-audible whisper of the mid 1990’s. The music is full-sounding, with lots of strings, keyboards, and guitars giving the music a slightly eerie feel. But, even with the excellent vocal, drum, keyboard and arrangement contributions of Lenz, and the aforementioned sensibilities permeating through the music, its Martin’s songwriting that really shines on Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice. Martin’s style of writing terse, simple phrases of music at times gives his music an overly simple quality that does not stand up well on repeated listens. However, on Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice, the nine songs all shine with strong and imaginative melodies, with nary a dull moment in sight.

Highlights of Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice include the understated opener “The Contest Completed”, which heralds the beginning of the CD with a sombre mood-establishing melody and lush instrumentation. “Easy Street” reeks with moodiness with its slower tempo, foreboding guitars and vocals, and ominous strings. “Good Sons” is ready for the radio as the brightest and fastest song on Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice. Generous helpings of synths, guitars, electronic percussion and a candy-coated melody (though dark in that unmistakable Starflyer 59 way) support one of the catchiest songs that Martin has ever released. Night Life seethes with rock attitude, while the strings restrain the song from becoming an overwhelming psychedelic jam. “A Good Living”, containing a gorgeous melody, a variety of beautifully blended keyboard, acoustic and electric guitar, and string sounds, also possesses some of Martin’s most obviously spiritual lyrics ever released by him, as he sings “Jesus Christ please help me ‘cause I’m lonely”. “Softness, Goodness”, which also appeared on The Last Laurel is a stunning slow-burner of a song, again showcasing Martin’s distinct ability to write strong melodies in a dark-pop-rock context. It seems that this is what Martin does best, as evidenced in the best moments of his past works. Though he is a great guitar player (and those guitar skills are barely exercised on Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice), Martin’s greatest gift seems to be the knack for composing dark, moody songs that are without pretence and are somehow catchy and well-structured.  Thankfully, Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice), contains many songs written in this vein, and the result is a collection of nine songs that fills this listener with glee.

As I write about this CD, though, I’m a little frustrated…and not at all about the wonderful music found on the disc (in fact, I only have two small complaints about the disc: the simplistic artwork seems a little too much of an afterthought to my eyes, and the length of the disc, at about 32 minutes, is quite short). You see, even as I write this review, I almost feel that I’m likely preaching to the converted…as most people who’ve heard Starflyer 59 have become rabid fans and are likely to have already heard  Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice and made their own opinions of it. And, even though Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice is a fresh-sounding CD, all that really needs to be said is that this CD is a Starflyer 59 CD, and that it’s most certainly one of the strongest Starflyer 59 CD’s to date.

And perhaps that is the measure of a great band. When a reviewer focuses more on comparing a band’s release with previous releases from the same band, rather than comparing it with another band’s work, something of legitimacy is imprinted on the band. And, when subjected to the litmus test of previous Starflyer 59 releases, Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice easily stands up to the rest in its sophistication, exquisite songwriting, and tasteful arrangements. Maybe it’s all in my head: maybe this review is nothing more than a subjective rant of a reviewer who is giddy that one of his favourite bands have adopted a style he thoroughly enjoys. But in all honesty, Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice is perhaps the strongest release that Starflyer 59 has EVER released. And that is no small feat for a band with such a stellar and extensive back catalog. Highly recommended.

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