Starsailor’s ‘Love is Here’ solid but derivative

The band’s name is an homage to seminal folk-rocker Tim Buckley, and, fittingly, the album is itself homage to the sounds of many pop predecessors. Like the overrated Travis, currently one of Britain’s most popular bands, Starsailor’s sound is a tapestry of music we’ve already heard, done better. Love is Here is equal parts Led Zeppelin (check out the uncanny Robert Plant imitation that lead singer James Walsh keeps up), Portishead, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead and the now defunct The Verve.

Of course, none of these groups are particularly bad, and neither is this album. Actually, it is very good. The somewhat problematic question that Love is Here begs is this: Does it bode well for modern pop music that rather than pushing the envelope, bands like Starsailor are satisfied referring back to staples of their own musical upbringing? And that they are essentially rehashing them in the process, even if that rehash sounds great?

We’ve heard all of Love is Here before. It’s hard not to compare every song to one we love, done by one of our favorite bands, on one of our favorite albums. And when we heard them the first time, half of the excitement was that we’d never heard anything like them before.

Love is Hear forces us to admit that those days of novelty are long gone.

It would be so much easier to dismiss Starsailor if their first album weren’t so endlessly, completely enjoyable. It makes up in sheer listen-ability what it lacks in musical creativity and freshness. The short songs move at an impressive clip, slashing and burning through some undeniably driven pop hooks. There simply isn’t a stumbling block in here, not a bad song, not an ounce of musical fat, not a single indulgence. This is pared down, solid, often compelling stuff.

But it is in the album’s almost deliberate curtness, in the seeming unwillingness of Starsailor to indulge themselves musically, that the excitement wanes. This is not risky music. Starsailor never removes the net from under their tightrope wire act. They never overreach. They settle for a pretty product, not a substantial one. And so the strength of their album is undercut with a sort of falseness. We know that even if a song fails, they haven’t raised the stakes enough to make it matter. There are neither soaring moments on the record, nor are there any notably low ones. Starsailor merely does its job and lets itself out the back door without waking anyone up.

As biology class teaches us, life is most exciting at its edges, and music, similarly, most exciting at its fringes — where big, unwieldy concepts can sink or swim. There is simply nothing heavy enough about this album to sink it. It’s safe rock. The envelope remains intact.

Chalk that up, perhaps, to Starsailor’s desire to establish themselves, to gain a fan following, to get money, before delving deeper into their music, before indulging themselves. That’s what Radiohead did with their still amazing The Bends. They built up enough momentum and enough of a fan base with that album to mastermind the classic OK Computer and give it an audience.

Love is Here exists in the same pool as Coldplay’s 2000 release Parachutes. It’s a guilty pleasure. I can’t hear enough of it, but I’ve got the sinking sensation that my pleasure it merely superficial. I’ve got the sinking sensation that there’s little beneath the surface. I could be wrong.

Across the Atlantic, Starsailor are being hailed as a serious new contender on the rock ‘n’ roll scene, in the same way that New York’s The Strokes are overzealously lauded stateside. The Strokes, in their own derivative irresistibility, recently put out an equally catchy and harmless debut album, Is This It.

For both bands, the true proving ground is yet to come.

Are Starsailor all that this album quietly promises? Are The Strokes? Are Coldplay? Are they willing to take chances? Are they willing to overextend themselves and fail? Are they willing to expand and experiment, or will they fold back in on themselves, trying to recreate the successful sounds of their debuts, and the sounds of their forbears? That is for their follow-up albums to show.

For now, Love is Here stands as an small monument to the power of good pop music.

Until Starsailor returns, it can remain only that.

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