Josh Starmer is a master collaborator. A former member of The Old Ceremony and Birds and Arrows, he has become an in-demand cello player. But like a chef who's still hungry after work, Starmer likes to write songs that speak to his own passions. On Germany Zulu, his second solo release, Starmer revels in the sound of strings as he meditates on love, yearning and the vicissitudes of travel.
Though drawing inspiration from trips to Indochina, South America and the American West, Starmer's songs tend to look inward on issues like motion sickness, seasonal affective disorder and genetics. Appropriate for such insular subjects, the accompaniment is bedroom pop—somewhere between chamber pop and indie folk, defined by an admixture of acoustic stringed instruments, electronic keyboards and a witty but vulnerable sensibility.
Starmer upholds those tenets for Germany Zulu, recorded in an actual bedroom. He handled songwriting and production duties, played numerous stringed instruments and supplied improvised rhythms with saltshakers and wrenches. But the difference between Starmer and those this style suggests—Stuart Murdoch, Stephin Merritt, Sufjan Stevens—is that they come from darker places. Their barbed sensibility offers contrast to the music's orderliness. But Starmer is an innocent, in love with love and fond of the stars in the sky.
Starmer writes and records music for movies, modern dance and television commercials. As such, Germany Zulu feels more like a show reel than an album. The wistful, cello-heavy opener "Watching the Sunrise" is tailor-made for an indie film, perhaps as Jason Schwartzman restrings a badminton racquet. The catchy, whistled hook of "Dance Party" fits an overhead shot of a packed automobile, cruising toward the horizon.
Starmer's strengths as an arranger, player and vocalist are not in question. But the most glaring absence here is the lack of anything crucial to say or a distinctive way of saying it—hearts beat, kisses land on lips, there's a fire in your smile. If Starmer learns to evoke in his songs the rushes that inspired them, the results could be glorious.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Set pieces."