When Starsailor drops anchor at Amos' SouthEnd on Sept. 14, it may quite possibly be your last chance to see the band in an intimate environment before it begins to headline corporate amphitheaters around the country. With its blend of melodic Brit-pop that draws from the same well of mellowness and melancholy as Coldplay and Doves, it already seems a bit of an oversight that Starsailor should be relegated to playing smaller venues in support of its most recent album, On the Outside (Adrenaline Music, 2006).
Fresh from its recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Starsailor will come to the Queen City with the weight of a steady buzz that has been building amongst critics for several years, but which has yet to manifest into a crescendo with a large audience -- at least in this country. In their native England, guitarist/vocalist James Walsh, bassist James Stelfox, drummer Ben Byrne, and keyboardist Barry Westhead have been receiving rave reviews since their first album, Love is Here, which debuted in 2001, ultimately reaching the number two spot on the U.K. album charts. Though some found the album not as polished as that of other bands (once again the oft-compared Coldplay, Travis, etc.), it garnered enough attention from the likes of legendary producer Phil Spector who came in to produce Starsailor's sophomore effort, Silence is Easy.
By all accounts, Spector's collaboration with the band was tense, and he ended up producing only two tracks for the band's second outing. Despite Spector's dismissal mid-way through the disc's recording, Starsailor managed to deliver an album that draws upon its already formidable strengths: James Walsh's soaring vocals that often call to mind the angelic crooning of Jeff Buckley, and Starsailor's ability to craft intimate songs that inhabit a vast sonic-landscape -- very much in the vein of Spector's own "wall of sound" approach.
With two albums under its belts (each arguably as good as those of its previously mentioned more popular peers), an opening slot for the Rolling Stones in 2003, and appearances at some of the largest festivals in the U.K., it seems slightly baffling that Starsailor should be flying under the American radar. Particularly so in this day of Clear Channel Capitalism where the radio market thrives on similarity.
The new CD should be the one that brings it to a wider American audience. On the Outside seems a leap in maturity for Starsailor. While the songs still resonate with the pleasant melancholy that seems to be the connecting aesthetic in all the best British rock -- I'm assuming it's the influence of a climate in which it frequently rains -- a great deal of the prettiness of the previous albums has been supplanted by a more rocking sound.
Also, its first two discs seemed slightly out-of-step lyrically and musically. These are young guys in their 20s, and it is the rare songwriter who can show his or her best work within a record or two. There is a new sophistication in the lyrics of Outside that marks a departure from the overly eros-laden laments of their earlier work. This is perhaps best exemplified in the song "Jeremiah," a tremendously moving ballad about the death of Jeremiah Duggan who died in Germany under mysterious circumstances, after attending what he thought to be an anti-war rally that was secretly organized by right-wing extremists. Vocalist Walsh sings, "He only went to try and change something / His poor young life was pulled from under him / And every time I see the sun go down I think of you / The polizei have swept it out of sight."
This type of political language creeps in throughout the album, perhaps distilling the mood of the British youth in the sweet language of music as in opening rocker "In the Crossfire": "I don't see myself when I look at the flag / Thank God for that."
It will be a shame if Starsailor is condemned to the shadows as a poor-man's Coldplay (after all, the show at Amos' is only $10 -- a bargain if ever one existed). On the Outside shows that they are far from it, demonstrating a new edge that should finally put Starsailor on the map of American radio.