For a small, intensely devoted few, Tooth & Nail Records was in the 90s a sacred entity on par with Dischord, Epitaph, Sub Pop and the like. The label, in these cases, was something to behold in and of itself, educating its sycophants on emerging underground genres while the artists themselves, though indispensable, were players in the broader aesthetic story. Somewhat ironically, though, the affect these players have on our lives often outlives that of the label itself. This is the case with California’s Starflyer 59, often the one-man show of Jason Martin, whose covered everything from shoegaze, new wave, psychedelia, ’60s pop, and garage rock over his 16-year-career on Tooth & Nail, leading his young fans to an appreciation for The Beach Boys, My Bloody Valentine, The Pixies, and New Order along the way. On his latest, Changing of the Guard, Martin continues this meta-conversation by channeling Tom Petty with solid results, albeit somewhat predictably.
Starting with 2004’s I Am the Portuguese Blues, Martin began to refine his sound in less dramatic ways than, say, when the enveloping Shields-ian guitars of Gold turned into the subtle synth pop of Everybody Makes Mistakes. Filled with gritty, four-on-the-floor rock anthems a la Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, I Am the Portuguese Blues began a series of records that are collectively more conventional than their more ambitious predecessors, though no less well-conceived. My Island, Dial M, and Changing of the Guard, in particular, could easily comprise a triple LP, each a slightly different take on modern alternative rock, except most of these songs are far more earnest and interesting than anything currently being hocked by Clear Channel. Sure, it’s somewhat disappointing to wrestle with your former hero’s grab toward the familiar, but there’s no denying Martin’s still capable of delivering quality material, even if Changing of the Guard feels somewhat rehashed.
Lyrically, Martin basks in the age-old waning light of rock-n-roll youth. He’s coming to terms with the redundancies of adulthood and seems to wonder if his best days have passed him by. “Time Machine”, “Trucker’s Son”, and “Kick the Can” reinforce this questioning most prominently, though Martin’s hope in the face of a seemingly dark future is by now a known quantity, always creating an intriguing, honest balance that brings to mind his semi-spiritual contemporaries, Damien Jurado and David Bazan. Martin’s style is unquestionably more pop-structured, though, singing, “What’s fun is fun/What’s done is done/So come home, come home” in the opening chorus with brief but pace-setting candor.
Unsurprisingly, Martin’s compositional and production skills shine brightly throughout Changing of the Guard‘s relatively short run-time. Though the songs largely lack a surprise quotient, the record’s exquisite tones, percussive splashes, sophisticated guitar work, and vintage synth choices blend together to create a mature listening experience, one that’s often lost in the haze of today’s infatuation with lo-fi, self-made recordings. All of these songs shimmer with a crisp production that’s complex, though not overdone, collectively recalling the work of Ken Andrews or Marcus Dravs, who was at the helm for another little known record that came out recently, The Suburbs. Standouts “Time Machine” and “Coconut Trees” are perhaps the best representation of Martin’s talent here, each a groove-based, almost tropical nod toward early Beck. If the swagger of these songs heralds Martin’s next aesthetic fascination, we’ll all be the better for it.
Changing of the Guard isn’t Martin’s best work, but it’s far from disposable. Taken as a chapter in his long-running annals, it’s simply another iteration of his well-worn appreciation for timeless classics, an ode to the artists who inspired him to create in the first place. It’s also a commentary on growing up, one that reminds us that it’s okay to ponder our more vibrant days of the past, so long as it’s not at the expense of missing the life that’s happening in the present. In the end, then, Martin releases himself to the “change” in the Changing of the Guard, inviting us into a renewed understanding of ourselves as adults who are just as capable of insatiable endeavor as our younger, more ambitious selves.