Starsailor is born

Music - Richard Cook on the group seeking The Verve's throne

The further away we get from the rock'n'roll tradition of Elvis and his contemporaries, the more remote we are from music as a bringer of joy. British bands have long been world-class at the fine art of sitting on your own and being miserable, and that ennobling strain is more virulent than ever in music by today's groups. At a time when Radiohead rule the English rock roost, we aren't likely to bear witness to any kind of Barron Knights revival for some time yet. Starsailor, on the face of it, don't do much to break out of this circle. Their debut record chimes with key lines of the order of "I've got something in my throat/I need to be alone/While I suffer"; and with titles such as "She Just Wept", "Way to Fall" and "Poor Misguided Fool", you might think that the mood sets itself. But the record is actually called Love Is Here, and in its oddly unassuming way it feels uncommonly generous and gracious in spirit. From the beautifully parsed instrumental passage that opens the record to the busking strum that ends it, there is a lot more uplift than you expect. Maybe Starsailor have it in them to crack a smile through the prevailing gloom.

They emerged around the beginning of the year as possible pretenders to the throne left vacant by the departure of The Verve, a sound that majors in melodious, lovesick anthems with a string section just begging to be ushered on stage. Much of Love Is Here could have been dressed up in those clothes, and most reviewers have already complained that James Walsh's voice is as overwrought as a Liberace candelabrum. Actually, he's no more demonstrative than, say, Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen (and at times he even reminded me of Mungo Jerry's Ray Dorset) - and Starsailor need a frontman of this emphasis. Without him, their pallor would be very different, and this material would simply drift off into the solipsistic ether.

Instead, the record bridges folk-like textures and surprisingly hard-nosed rock performance, often within the course of the same song. It steadfastly refuses to take the epic road - it's tight, clustered, confined within the band's four corners. Steve Osborne's production makes light of the point that they're not virtuoso instrumentalists: it's sifted together with a deftness that makes the most of each mellifluous bridge or tagline. The keyboard parts alone - whether acoustic grand, electric or tack piano, or a tumescent Hammond organ - are ingeniously spread through the 11 tracks.

Maybe the most interesting thing is that, for a group whom some claim to be little more than a parade of influences, Starsailor don't sound much like any of their oft-cited forebears. They take their name from a cult record by the American singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, but the tenor of the music reminded me most of the bucolic provincial playing that used to typify the so-called Canterbury groups of the Seventies. (And, ahem, the opening of "Lullaby" is an unaffected rip from "Supper's Ready" by Genesis.) They're English to the marrow.

None of this hurts. Maybe it's time to make a case for rock-as-repertory - as a useful tool for new groups to, like, go ahead and express themselves - rather than as a merely dishonourable shaking-down of the past. Starsailor aren't doing anything we haven't heard before, but the point is that we haven't heard them doing it before, and when it's as beguiling as this often is, it doesn't matter that they break down no barriers. It is hard to say what most of the songs on Love is Here are about, beyond a certain level of citizen loneliness, but Walsh does have a gift, perhaps instinctual, for the odd arresting line: "We met in a cinema, you fell from my view". As with the music his group makes, he puts just enough new paint on a sequence of familiar words to personalise what he wants to say.

While there's an English fecklessness at the heart of it all, that only makes it even more squarely "in the tradition". You might wish for them to find a way to cheer themselves up, but perhaps not just yet.

Love Is Here is out now on Chrysalis. Starsailor support the Charlatans at Wembley Arena (020 8902 0902) on 15 December

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and rise of President Blair