Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Steve Burns - Songs for Dustmites

Steve Burns - Songs for Dustmites

That this record exists at all is kind of funny.  Explaining its pedigree to a person usually elicits the response you might get if you were to start a joke with 'A priest, a rabbi and a monk walked into a bar...'. 

So Steve Burns, the original host of Blue's Clues on Nick Jr., decides to abandon a well-loved and high-profile gig on cable television in favor of recording a song cycle about a reluctant Superman with the help of one Steven Drozd - who we all know as the drummer for the Flaming Lips.  Drozd convinces the Lips' producer - God of Clusterfuck Thunder Dave Fridmann - to produce the album, and then Steve stole the Big Comfy Chair from the set over at Nickelodeon, and the rest is history.

I bought this record from the sorely missed Music Millennium in Northwest Portland on the day it was released - which also happened to be the very first day I ever spent in Portland.  I have a soft spot for novelty music that strives to be something bigger than itself, but I was particularly excited about this one: I'd been reading about it for more than a year, and I already regarded Steve as the most earnest and engaging children's show host since Fred Rogers.  Also, at the time I was so apeshit in love with the Flaming Lips that the chocolate-and-peanut butter nature of 'Songs for Dustmites' was sure to appeal to me.

Of course, with Dave Fridmann at the boards, the album kicks into overdrive almost immediately with 'Mighty Little Man'.  Steve Burns assumes the role of a man who accidentally imbues himself with superpowers in a laboratory accident.  The song is big and loud, and with lines like "Nobody else is stronger than I am/Yesterday I moved a mountain/I bet I could be your hero/I am a mighty little man', it could almost sound like some Creed bullshit if you didn't get the feeling that the singer is being entirely literal.

What follows, surprisingly, isn't 40 minutes of amateur songwriting buried under the electronic patchouli that smothered every Lips album from 'The Soft Bulletin' until 'At War With the Mystics'.  In fact, the quieter moments are the best: '>1' finds our Mighty Little Man wishing for simpler times, remembering building forts, playing with G.I. Joes and anticipating a future in which we'll live on the moon; for the percussion on this track, Steve mic'd the armrests of the big red patent leather chair from the Blue's Clues set and played them like a bongo.  'A Reason' sounds like a plea for sex with the ex, 'Stick Around' expands to include a surprisingly subtle, intricate string arrangement.  The centerpiece of the record is 'A Song for Dustmites', a simple piano ballad about love on a microcosmic scale, which launches into the troposphere at the final chorus with a spine-shaking drum solo from Drozd.  And just to make sure everyone who ever hears it has a chance to scratch their head and say What the Fuck, there's also a song about string theory.

Seven years ago, I spent six nights in the hostel in NW Portland, eating ecstasy and hardwiring this record to my brain.  To me it's a record about smashing through the walls and entering a major new phase, and then realizing how incapable and scared you really are.  The Mighty Little Man has his heart mishandled and decides that although he has the ability to save the world, the world doesn't deserve it.  The stupid bitch.

[originally posted 10/29/10]

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