Singer Jason Martin of Starflyer 59 can write the simple, lo-fi song. That’s not the problem. On Talking Voice Vs. Singing Voice, his influences — ’80s British rock, R.E.M. — take more of the spotlight than they should, but that’s not entirely the problem, either. Lo-fi is a dangerous template to work under, and here Starflyer 59 plays right into what’s expected by that moniker. The decidedly bare, droning low-end rock is covered up on several tracks — by synth drums, orchestra swells, oddly placed trumpets — but all it does is swamp the music in layers of studio trickery. The real problem is that beneath those layers, the songs lack any sense of emotion or commitment, and they still have a ways to go.
Along with David Bazan of Pedro the Lion, whose side project, Headphones, provides a better showcase for Starflyer drummer Frank Lenz, Starflyer 59 is at the forefront of the contemporary Christian rock scene (remember: think Pedro the Lion, not Creed). And like Pedro the Lion, Starflyer never takes the pulpit. Instead, the band (which is really Martin’s project; Lenz is currently the only other member) has thus far focused more on spiritual tests of faith and personal struggles with religion. But for the most part, Talking Voice steers away from talk (or song) about any higher power. “What’s the use in living/ if you can’t make a good living?,” Martin asks on “Good Living.” Like much of the album, it’s nothing more than a half-hearted question with a repetitive beat.
It’s not Starflyer’s Christian bent that gets in the way. I wouldn’t mind if Martin professed more. I wouldn’t mind if the amps cut out and he read a capella from Ecclesiastes. It’s that the music shies away from any emotional stronghold, instead calmly plodding along, sounding like the Cure here, R.E.M. there. A few moments do shine: the dark sing-along of “Good Sons” and the violin-drenched atmosphere of “A List Goes On,” in which Martin briefly changes his name to Chris and laces his voice with something close to vulnerability. But the question he asks and answers — “Is this my life?/ Maybe so” — yields the same complacency in the listener as the lyrics suggest. And on “The Longest Line,” which sounds eerily like an outtake to Radiohead’s The Bends, Jesus is an afterthought. Without the Toto-ish synth-drums, it’s not half bad. But it’s only half good.
The emotion and passion isn’t there at all on Talking Voice, and the music follows in tow, dragging and never committing, providing a weak anchor. “‘Cause no one ever listens/ So tell me what’s the difference,” Martin says on “A List Goes On.” He’s certainly not going to offend with that attitude, but neither will he make any converts.