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+ {James Walsh}

Post-millennium Britpop was at a minimum when Wigan’s wailing wonders STARSAILOR pinned their hopes to the mast. While it’d be nigh-on impossible to fill the bittersweet symphonies of postcode peers The VERVE or, for that matter, their proto-genic figurehead RICHARD ASHCROFT, Chorley-born frontman James Walsh and Co managed to assume the mantle of next-best-thing.
Taking their moniker from a buoyant 1970 album by the vocal acrobat, TIM BUCKLEY, Wigan & Leigh College music students Walsh (vocals/guitar), James Stelfox (bass) – from nearby Warrington – and Ben Byrne (drums), teamed up with new arrival Barry Westhead (keyboards), in 2000. An obvious influence in their musical kinship, TIM BUCKLEY, along with star-crossed son JEFF BUCKLEY, VAN MORRISON, The CHARLATANS and TRAVIS, the indie quartet debuted at London’s Heavenly Social that April, after writing only five songs, three of which were floating around on demo tapes circulating the men from the industry.
Evergreen giants of the music business, Chrysalis Records eventually won over the band, who were still astonished by the critical response they were receiving, it being so early on in their career. STARSAILOR were concentred on tour with fellow indie guitar comrades JJ72 and ALFIE, which led to the issue of their debut single, `Fever’, a melancholic Top 20 record that would duly spark a sold-out nationwide headline tour. `Goodsouls’, a simple guitar-jangling lullaby followed, and word seemed to be spreading as the single went several places higher than its predecessor, earning them an American tour with DOVES and a spot on nocturnal comic David Letterman’s show. On the back of the group’s Top 10-breaking `Alcoholic’ (its harshest critic, MOGWAI’s Stuart Braithwaite, who bravely stated: “You can just tell James Walsh would sell his granny for a Brit Award”), previewed the forlorn, lovelorn, any-lorn LOVE IS HERE (2001) {*8}. As prized and achingly passionate as COLDPLAY’s `Parachutes’, the whinging but endearing laments of follow-on singles, `Lullaby’ and `Poor Misguided Fools’, were tracks that would’ve made even THOM YORKE groan. That said, STARSAILOR obviously had a general appeal and were musically talented enough to climb as high as they did – one spot off the top – in such a short period of time.
Moving along the corporate ladder to E.M.I. Records, Walsh and Co displayed their songwriting skills even further on the band’s sophomore effort, SILENCE IS EASY (2003) {*7}. With a troubled PHIL SPECTOR producing only two of the eleven songs on offer, STARSAILOR weren’t moving in any new directions. The soft sheen of Walsh was still present, as were the beautiful guitar melodies and poignant lyrics of love and squalor. Although the No.2 album wasn’t nearly as well received as their debut, perhaps because it sounded a tad over-produced (especially the SPECTOR tracks); hits such as the attendant title track, `Born Again’ and `Four To The Floor’, tended to wear their weary hearts firmly on their sleeves for most of the duration.
STARSAILOR seemed to be treading water on third album, ON THE OUTSIDE (2005) {*6}, when it only reached No.13, however, there was no panic at this juncture, as stylish singles `In The Crossfire’ (an anti-Iraq War song), `This Time’ and `Keep Us Together’ hooked into the charts.
So far, America had not swayed with the tide as STARSAILOR safely floated above the water-line in Old Blighty, so when the Virgin Records-sanctioned “comeback” set ALL THE PLANS {*6} was released in March 2009, it was hardly surprising that the Steve Osborne-produced Top 30 album was given short-shrift when delivered in digital form over the big pond. The signs were indeed ominous when the acoustic-led `Boy In Waiting’ opened up a freebie EP, while attendant single, `Tell Me It’s Not Over’, only loitered within the Top 75 for a week; the appearance of RONNIE WOOD on the title track was a desperate attempt to assume fickle fans would be interested. STARSAILOR had sound-tracked the decade with literate ballads such as `Alcoholic’, and now they were drowning in their own tears, while rivals COLDPLAY and a re-formed THE VERVE were entering a new phase.
In the event, a prolonged hiatus was duly granted where time itself would draw its own conclusions. In the meantime, although rather out of sync, a belated best of set, GOOD SOULS: THE GREATEST HITS {*8}, floundered sales-wise when released in September 2015; maybe it lacked an all-encompassing catch-up appeal if the inclusion of B-side covers fermented more than just an idea. This would’ve seen the compilation include `The Way Young Lovers Do’ (VAN MORRISON), `Push The Button’ (SUGABABES), `Darling Be Home Soon’ (The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL) and `Military Madness’ (GRAHAM NASH), but that was just an afterthought.
Hoping to kick-start his solo career in 2010 via an EP, `Live At The Top Of The World’, it was almost shameful and unjustifiable when JAMES WALSH’s attempts to claw back some limelight on LULLABY (2012) {*5} failed to register within the indie fraternity; the same sect that had granted STARSAILOR their worthy position near the top of the post-Britpop tree. As the poignantly-titled `Start Again’ single faded into a backdrop of nice ‘n’ easy tracks, good enough to eat one’s food from, WALSH’s second set TURNING POINT (2014) {*5} – `Firing Line’ featuring SUZANNE VEGA – suggested it was time for WALSH to swim back to shore for a full-blown STARSAILOR reunion.
That came about with the release of a “greatest hits” set in 2015, which included fresh material, `Hold On’ and `Give Up The Ghost’. Hooking up with Cooking Vinyl Records and EMBRACE’s Richard McNamara (on production), there was an altogether positive vibe for STARSAILOR’s comeback album, ALL THIS LIFE (2017) {*7}; several rave reviews earned it a Top 30 spot. At times as delicate as anything that would once shore up a DANNY WILSON or LOVE AND MONEY record, a sad, soulful and soaring Walsh (and Co) warbled out some heartache-on-his-sleeve cues via `Listen To Your Heart’, `Caught In The Middle’ and `Best Of Me’.
Once again taking his leave from his main vocation, the buoyant JAMES WALSH – recently divorced from his wife – re-surfaced in 2019 with his third solo set, TIGER ON THE BRIDGE {*7}. Pledgemusic had given the album the green light of approval; a record he recorded his front of fans at London’s RAK Studios; one of them being his new girlfriend whom he fruitfully proposed to in between songs. A UK tour unfolded thereafter; giving the singer-songwriter to perform his introspective best bits, `Heavy Heart’, `Germaine’, `Success In My Failings’ and `Single Life’.
© MC Strong 2002-2006/GRD-AS // rev-up MCS Aug2016-Jun2019

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