Silence is Easy, Starsailor’s sophomore release, is already the bee’s knees in their native UK. It’s slated for stateside release in late January, and that’s where things get a bit blimey. Starsailor’s 2002 debut Love is Here was a critical and Brit rock fan fave, but its graceful austerity and heartbreak was lost on most. Not so in 2004. Coldplay’s curious all-things-to-all-people mindwarp has everyone from little sisters to large animal veterinarians loving well-appointed mope rock from across the pond, and has made Capitol – the American pimp for both Coldplay and Starsailor – very happy. Hmm, the label muses in its corner office late one evening. Why not double our pleasure? And suddenly Silence is getting a publicity push to rival the 4forAll from Pizza Hut. (FHM, that paragon of music journalism, gave it 4½ stars.) Hey, it turns out pimpin’ is easy!
Of course, there’s no guarantee that America will go for it, no matter how many nice things are said. After all, it took Coldplay the better part of four years and the issue of the sonic version of a pair of khakis to reach their ludicrous level of success, and Starsailor’s stuff – while it can be bold and hooky – is often more insular than the easily digestible Romance Channel niceties of Chris Martin. Since their collective late 90s emergence, Coldplay, Starsailor, and Travis have been recognized – rightly – as What Brit Pop Made. But the latter two acts don’t seem to want what the Play now has (well, snogging Gwyneth WOULD be nice…). A few bits on Silence do amplify the muscular, addictive pulse of Love is Here bomb track “Good Souls” to ensure populist embrace, and a brief appearance by batshit crazy helming icon Phil Spector behind the boards has boosted the band’s profile (and – to a point – sound) considerably. But overall this isn’t a handful of gelcaps or a modern rock sandwich with the icky crusts cut off. Starsailor draws much more on the sobering, studied side of Radiohead than its peers. Which is what makes Capitol’s promotional zeal for the album seem so forced – Starsailor’s eager pop intellectualism outweighs its tenable links to Coldplay’s bread and butterisms. Damn! It turns out pimpin’ ain’t easy after all.
Starsailor’s recent Detroit date was the first on a brief US club tour. Outside, grey, greasy snow splattered the chipped front steps of St. Andrews Hall, and the single-digit chill howled through the gloomy alley separating the venue from its brand new strip club neighbor. Inside the crowd was intimate. Lackeys from Capitol strew glossy Starsailor promotional booklets all over the long black bar, and a gauzy backdrop of stars – get it? – draped behind the band’s gear. Head Charlatan Tim Burgess had been scheduled to open, but he cancelled after I Believe, his new solo effort, had its US release date pushed back. This may have contributed to the room being half-full, and Old Man Winter certainly chased a few, too. But mainly it was because word hasn’t yet spread. Silence is Easy doesn’t drop until January 27th, so only the Anglophiles and usual scenesters cared to put names to faces.
Appropriately, the band seemed to treat the gig as a quiet warmup for the Really Big Things their label inevitably has planned for spring. James Walsh established an easygoing pace right away, chatting amiably with a few cheeky Englishmen in the front row and thanking those that had been in the house a year or so before, when Starsailor and pals Charlatans UK had delivered a particularly incendiary set. Guided by Walsh’s effortless, fluttering voice, they ambled through new material shaded with Love is Here highlights. In spite of Walsh’s amazing vocals – which seem to drip with pure emotion – there’s still a faraway, almost laconic quality to this band. Choruses surged forth and broke with sweeping melody in perfect Brit rock tradition – the title track and “Music Was Saved” were new material standouts in this regard – but the underlying feel was studied, pace-keeping. Hanging on in quiet desperation, and all of that. When his acoustic guitar was present, Walsh made it a shambling, earthy force, matched only by his enormous vocal presence. Set middle found him alone onstage, bashing out an amazing, soulful version of Bruce Springsteen’s desperate man anthem “Atlantic City.” But at the same time, his electric guitar playing was lighter, taking a support role to the elaborate bass lines of James Stelfox and the baroque washes of strings coming from Barry Westhead’s keyboards. This was brainy, gilded stuff, made a twinge more exciting by an encore that stretched “Good Souls” into an atmospheric, hazy groove that reached right back to The Verve’s heyday.
Exciting for the 250 diehards there, anyway. If Starsailor’s strong set proved anything, it’s that their opaque, somewhat elaborate take on What Brit Pop Made isn’t sex music for coeds, karaoke material, or the kind of import sound that’ll sell out the midsized arenas and cause millions of rushes of blood to the head. Sure, enough cashflow can sell anything. The mindboggling amateurism of Nickelback’s current album, for example (#17 with a fuckin’ bullet, dude!). But can Capitol’s wad make Starsailor a mainstream creature in Coldplay’s image, whether Walsh and his mates like it or not? If it does happen, here’s hoping they at least get a Gwynth-caliber snog out of the deal.
Be sure to read Johnny’s January, 2002, prediction of the Coldplay/Starsailor invasion: Are the British Coming? Coldplay and Starsailor make a case for intelligent music on the radio. And his February, 2001, piece about Coldplay: Let’s Hear It for the High Pitched.