Starsailor: New album includes two tracks produced by Phil Spector (courtesy photo)

Starsailor joins the ranks of nice, sensitive, so-very-English bands

Remember when British rockers were debauched and dangerous? John Bonham pleasuring groupies with a live red snapper, Sid Vicious ending his girlfriend's existence with a hunting knife to the gut, Liam Gallagher head-butting fans after shows and attacking passengers on international flights, usually in a cocaine stupor?

Those days seem so long ago when considering the wholesome crop of English bands currently courting U.S. audiences - Coldplay, Travis, Elbow, et al. Such earnest, well-mannered, cerebral, nice lads, aren't they? You'd probably be comfortable letting any of them look after your kids or hang out at your house with your girlfriend while you leave town for the weekend, knowing that the worst you might discover upon your return is a half-empty container of soy milk left on the kitchen counter.

Starsailor frontman James Walsh, 23, just might be the most upstanding of the entire lot. Checking in from the United Kingdom - where the quartet is busy rehearsing for an upcoming tour in support of its second album, Silence Is Easy - it becomes apparent that the exceptionally polite, somewhat whispery singer-guitarist hasn't got one trashed hotel room, drunken orgy, or embarrassing run-in with the law to his credit. As it turns out, he hasn't created a ruckus, he's created a baby. Walsh declares that his daughter Niamh's arrival 17 months ago had a profound effect on his songcraft, and that just might be the key to breaking through here in the States.

"The first album `2002's Love Is Here` did pretty well, but it was introspective and melancholy," Walsh says. "The new record is that much more euphoric and upbeat because I fell in love and had a child, and I think it'll go over better with American crowds. I think they'll be able to empathize with the positivity of the album, the sense of hope that we tried to get across."

OK, Walch might be teetering precariously close to Ned Flanders terrritory, but you can't argue with his timing. From Chris Martin to Chris Carrabba, sensitive guys with acoustic guitars and/or pianos currently rule the roost, having nudged aside venomous nü-metal clowns and lascivious teen-pop knuckleheads on their way to winning fame, fortune, the adoration of millions of women, and even the respect and admiration of backward-hat-wearing frat boys from coast to coast.

So it would hardly be a shock if people connect en masse with the blatant heart-on-sleeve-isms bursting through the seams of Silence Is Easy. Lyrically, Walsh is prone to such mushy offerings as "Turn your head to face the sun and love will keep you safe" ("Telling Them") and "All the sea shall rise, all the stars will shine/And the moon will fall across the meadow" ("Bring My Love"). And from a musical standpoint, the album is packed with stately, swooning ballads - all delicate piano twinkles, gracefully soaring strings, ringing guitars, and epiphanic sing-along choruses. At times, the combination feels a bit overwrought. But when Starsailor handles its emotional business with subtlety and flair, the results are stunningly sublime.

Coldplay comparisons are probably unavoidable, but the best way to describe the sound of Starsailor to those who've never heard them is simply this: late-period Verve fronted by Jeff Buckley. That makes sense, given that Walsh and his bandmates hail from Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft's birthplace of Wigan and were steeped in the vibe of their hometown heroes at an impressionable age. Walsh also cites Buckley's 1994 masterpiece, Grace, as the single greatest influence on his style. On the tender, precious "White Dove," the resemblance is downright scary.

Scarier still, Walsh isn't content to conjure Buckley's spirit in the vocal booth alone. "When I'm trying to come up with stuff, a lot of times I'll sit down with a photograph of Jeff, look at it, and think, 'What would he think of this song?' It kinds spurs me on."

Walsh says he needs all the impetus he can get, because songwriting doesn't come easily to him. "I really have to sit down and concentrate when I'm writing," he says. "If I sit down with a guitar and think, 'OK, my job is as a songwriter, I've got to come up with some great songs today,' the pressure gets to me. I get uptight, and it's not a great way to write music. So I sit down with the guitar as if it were a hobby and see what I can come up with, and if it's great, brilliant, and if not, at least I'm enjoying myself. But you just keep at it, really, until something magical comes about."

That's all well and good, wise and inspiring. But is there anything even remotely dangerous or controversial to the Starsailor story? As a matter of fact, yes. In early 2002, while they were touring the States, the quartet learned that legendary (not to mention weird and reclusive) producer Phil Spector was a fan and had insisted on coming out of retirement to helm its next disc. Considering that Spector hadn't overseen an album since 1980, Starsailor jumped at the opportunity. But after a few months of recording at London's Abbey Road Studios, Spector's erratic behavior and dictatorial agenda grated on the band, and they gave him the old heave-ho (only two Spector tracks made it on Silence Is Easy). Just a few months later, Spector was arrested after police found actress Lana Clarkson shot to death in his Southern California mansion. He's since been charged with murder in the case.

With characteristic restraint, Walsh chooses not to comment on Spector. But just before he signs off, he makes crystal clear the only things that are truly important to him.

"My priorities and responsibilities are as a father, a husband, and an artist," he says. "When I'm offstage, I want to be close to my baby daughter, and when I'm onstage, I want to give it my all, send the audience home satisfied, and just enjoy the whole strange and touching experience." •

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