Steve Burns used to make his living as the television sidekick of an animated blue dog. The job entailed, among other things, breaking into a goofy dance whenever the mailman arrived and engaging in long, pregnant pauses while searching for an answer to simple questions. For six years, the fresh-faced and admirably patient Mr. Burns was the only live human to appear in every episode of Blue’s Clues , and thus he became a minor deity to the preschool set.
Now Mr. Burns has put that experience behind him and returned to the vocation he was pursuing before children’s-TV stardom intervened: composing and performing pop songs for a slightly maturer audience. The profile gained from his time on Blue’s Clues -coupled, no doubt, with the major-league money one assumes he received for his efforts-helped him recruit a few ringers. Mr. Burns’ debut album, Songs for Dustmites (PIAS America), features three men normally associated with those lovable neopsychedelic crackpots, the Flaming Lips: drummer Steven Drozd, bassist Michael Ivins and producer Dave Fridmann.
You can understand why a band that named its last full-length CD Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots would want to work with someone of Mr. Burns’ pedigree: The concept’s too off-the-wall to resist. But off-the-wall concepts can easily lead to off-your-head reality, and I must admit the words “self-indulgent vanity project” lingered in my mind as I prepared to listen to Songs for Dustmites . Luckily, what I heard was something else entirely: one of the most pleasant musical surprises of 2003 so far.
It turns out that Mr. Burns is a gifted songwriter with a knack for simple but effective melodies and self-deprecating wit (the key line of the infectious “What I Do on Saturday” is “I’m just a boring example of everybody else”). He’s got the courage to call a song “Troposphere,” and the skill to give it an airborne chorus to match. And though his voice is nothing special, it captures the spirit of these tunes perfectly: a little raw, a little geeky, but ready to take on the world.
Messrs. Fridmann, Ivins and Drozd, meanwhile, do their best to turn each selection into a symphony, piling on strings, horns, cacophonous percussion and-on the opening track, “Mighty Little Man”-pounding, speaker-busting synthesized bass. The result isn’t that far removed from a Flaming Lips record, and the wall of sound sometimes threatens to eclipse the front man’s personality. But to his credit, it never does. Songs for Dustmites suggests that the Kermit the Frog–level crossover move is within Mr. Burns’ grasp.
“Bein’ Green” was a big hit, after all.
A New Addiction
Another recent surprise, at least to me, has been the success of the reunited Jane’s Addiction. Strays (Capitol), the band’s first album in 13 years, debuted at No. 4 in Billboard with opening-week sales of 110,000. I didn’t think that many people still cared. Then again, I was never a Jane’s fan; Perry Farrell’s strident whine always grated on my ears. But a few spins of the new album reveal that those 110,000 people may be on to something: Strays rocks like a mother. Guitarist Dave Navarro and drummer Stephen Perkins, joined by new bassist Chris Chaney, sound cockier than ever, while time has mellowed Mr. Farrell’s vocal approach. Yet in the end, variety and dynamics are the key here. “Price I Pay” and “The Riches” are veritable mini-suites, morphing from jackhammer riff to delicate bridge with nary a warning. One wishes that the many crushingly boring alt-rock bands influenced by Jane’s Addiction will take Strays to heart in this respect.
Macy Gray’s third CD, The Trouble with Being Myself (Epic), hasn’t performed as well as Jane’s, coming in at No. 44. That’s a shame: The album’s a load of fun, and a further refinement of her idiosyncratic retro-funk style. When it comes to soul singing, I’ll take Ms. Gray’s raspysquawk any day over the melismacrobatics of Mariah and Whitney, because she actually uses her limited chops to convey emotion instead of showing off. Funny emotions she conveys, too; on “My Fondest Childhood Memories,” she boasts about killing off both her parents’ lovers to keep Mom and Dad together. Songs like this may leave some questioning Ms. Gray’s sanity, but only those who can’t appreciate the devilish twinkle in her voice.
In closing, here’s a look at three upcoming releases, all of them worth your attention when they’re released in early September.
· Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Take Them On, On Your Own (Virgin): The second band I know of to take its name from the classic Marlon Brando–Lee Marvin film The Wild One (the first being, arguably, the Beatles), BRMC has become such a cause célèbre in Britain that it’s odd to be reminded they’re two-thirds American. It’s even odder once you’ve heard their music, which sounds as British as you can get, in the dark, noisy, moody tradition of Joy Division, the Cult, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and just about every artist signed to the Creation label. This, their second album, is an improvement on their first, sporting both vicious rock (“Six Barrel Shotgun”) and spacy acoustic ruminations (“And I’m Aching”). The Club still doesn’t quite know when to stop playing-extended codas and false endings abound-but in all other respects, it proves worthy of its buzz.
· East River Pipe, Garbageheads on Endless Stun (Merge): Home-studio hermit F.M. Cornog, recently transplanted from Astoria to New Jersey, makes deceptively bright and shiny pop songs under the name of East River Pipe (a sobriquet only slightly less believable than his real one). Garbageheads on Endless Stun is his fifth album, and like its predecessors, it coats bitterness and sorrow with catchy tunes, layers of low-rent keyboards and a healthy sense of humor. (Think Magnetic Fields without the overt camp factor.) Mr. Cornog takes caustic swipes at easy targets, including Internet millionaires and “slobs in SUV’s” (“Where Does All the Money Go?”), but the stately ambiance of the music is forgiveness itself, if not redemption.
· Jeff Buckley, Live at Sin-é (Columbia): In the summer of 1993, shortly after signing with Columbia Records, Jeff Buckley played two lengthy one-man shows at Sin-é, the tiny St. Mark’s Place cafe (which is enjoying a second incarnation on Attorney Street on the Lower East Side), where he’d been performing every Monday night for the previous year. His new label rolled tape on both nights, and used the recordings for a four-song EP released that fall. Ten years later, and six years after Mr. Buckley’s untimely death, a two-CD, one-DVD expanded edition of Live at Sin-é , containing over two hours of unreleased material, is scheduled for release on Sept. 2.
What more can be said about the vast scope of Mr. Buckley’s talent? His loss was the greatest suffered by pop music in the past decade, and hearing him in this intimate context, joking and making small talk with friends between songs, is both thrilling and heartbreaking. What stands out most is his elastic sense of time; his version of Bob Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello” takes nearly three minutes to get through the first line. Teasing the audience is an old trick, of course, but this is something more. It’s as if Mr. Buckley realizes that once you’ve started the tune, you’re that much closer to finishing it, and he’s too drunk on the beauty of his own voice and guitar to even consider doing that. Odds are you’ll feel the same way.