Singles drive the charts and sales of albums – or at one time they did. In the era of the digital download, every song is a single and I wonder about the relevance of the album anymore. As a musician who has been and remains heavily influenced by Pink Floyd, I don't see a good album as a collection of potential singles so much as I see it as the musician taking the listener on a particular journey. But, let's face it: modern listeners don't like to relinquish the driver's seat. Was shuffle play the beginning of the end?
I don't remember when I bought my copy of Starfish, The Church's 1988 splash into the American top 40 via "Under The Milky Way." I do remember that I first heard the band's sole domestic hit during a music video marathon on VH1. The station was playing some sort of "Videos A to Z" special and the one video by The Church that was in their library snuck in there.
"Under The Milky Way" is the second song on Starfish; between it, opener "Destination," and follower, "Blood Money," they are giving off a very Joshua Tree-era (an LP which was released just a year prior) U2 vibe. But the band is more shoegazy than U2 ever was, leaning a bit more towards the Psychedelic Furs or The House of Love.
Despite being titled after the name of an aquatic creature, Starfish for me, evokes driving through a desert in the middle of the night – or perhaps just before daybreak. Side A, in particular, has a very dreamy atmosphere. "Lost" coupled with "Destination" probably perfectly encapsulate that mood.
I suspect a lot of people my age were introduced to this band via the use of "Under The Milky Way" in the 2001 film Donnie Darko (the soundtrack to which is pretty much a treasure trove of 1980s alternative). I also suspect that people bought the film soundtrack rather than the original albums each song came from.
After "North, South, East and West" dreamily closes side A, side B opens with a bit more rock in "Spark." Then a mandolin can be heard on "Antenna," which despite myself, still makes me think of R.EM. even though the song sounds nothing like "Losing My Religion."
The best "rocker" of side B though is "Reptile," one of the four singles culled from the set and the only other song from Starfish to receive the music video treatment. For a while this one was getting heavy rotation at Ceremony, Pittsburgh's longest-running (but now dead and buried) goth/industrial/dark alternative night. The DJ who used to play it quit, and was followed not long after by all of the other DJs who played music I actually wanted to hear. While I was there for the final night, I can't say I shed a tear for its demise. A pity, because they'd brought some people in who might have been able to turn things around and the night had moved to an excellent new venue – maybe it was too little too late? Who knows?
The shortest and weakest song on this set is "A New Season," which is probably because it follows "Reptile." Maybe if it followed "Lost," it wouldn’t sound out of place, but here it does. It doesn't wholly destroy the flow of the album, but it does hiccup ever so slightly. For me it does anyhow.
"Hotel Womb" closes the proceedings by getting things back on track. Nearly as long as opener "Destination," it feels like a mirror to that opener. Is the drive over? Have we reached our destination? Yes, we're finally at our hotel womb.