It's not an unusual career move for an adult or alternative rock act to segue into children's music. The genre's most popular band at the moment, The Wiggles, started out as Australian new-wave rockers. Its most appealing member, Dan Zanes, was part of the 1980s band the Del Fuegos, and recruits friends like Aimee Mann and Sheryl Crow to sing along with him. And They Might Be Giants crossed over with 2002's No! But Steve Burns' move from human companion on Nickelodeon's "Blue's Clues" to Flaming Lips protégé seems truly unique. And daring.
I've watched Blue's Clues since its inception, which coincided with my son's, and never thought much about Steve, except that he gestured a little too much. But when I spotted his autographed headshot alongside other autographed photos of struggling stars at a Brooklyn pizzeria, I saw him in a new light. Blue wasn't in the photo, and he signed it "Steve Burns," even though he wasn't at that point known outside of his TV show. It struck me that he probably had bigger plans than hanging out with characters with names like Sidetable Drawer and Tickety Tock. So, I wasn't that surprised when shortly after Burns left his blue companion to "go to college," I read that he was heading into the studio with Flaming Lips' drummer Steven Drozd and producer David Fridman.
Songs for Dustmites came out in early September. The timing couldn't be better. While Burns is taking his big, stomping steps away from the sandbox set, legions of adults are ferociously clinging to childhood games and music. A recent New York Times article used a multitude of names like "rejuveniles" and "kidults" to describe these people who wear T-shirts bearing Sesame Street Muppets and strive to remain playful "in the face of realities like fixed-rate mortgages or lawn care." Or, if you happen to live in my neighborhood, in the face of rats under the sofa and stolen car stereos. Burns does what these Twister-playing and cartoon-watching others awkwardly attempt, with no effort and a lot of grace. He clearly wants to put some distance between himself and the little ones, but he can't seem to contain his childlike nature; it spills out of ...Dustmites every time I open the disc, from the empty ice-cream container played in the song ">1" to the references to superheroes in several of the others. And in interviews with the music press, he never belittles his experience with Blue. He says it was a blessing. He's poised to move from patron saint of interactive children's TV to patron saint of self-indulgent adults.
Burns addresses those who might scoff at his career change in the opening track on ...Dustmites, "Mighty Little Man." Against a wall of big, fuzzy bass guitars and Flaming Lips-style soaring keyboards, he sings, in a deeper voice than he ever used on "Blue's Clues," about a tired man who all of a sudden gains superhero strength. In the chorus, "Yesterday I moved a mountain/ I bet I could be your hero/ I am a mighty little man," his voice gets a little higher and a lot louder. While the song is big and grand, and could easily be described as an anthem, it's not as slick and earnest as that John Mayer song that plays on MTV every hour, about being bigger than his body. The music shows that Burns can rock; the lyrics, that, apparently, he can also kick your ass.
He follows with "What I Do on Saturday," which opens with the line, "I'm just a boring example of everybody else." The song swirls and moves from straightforward guitar and drums, to echoed guitar noises to more of the orchestral maneuvers from Steve Drozd's keyboard. The lyrics "I'll never tell you what I do on Saturdays" are cryptic, and even a little ominous, as he's singing to someone he says ruined his life. The sinister tone helps to clear away the image of the smiling, avuncular Steve of "Blues' Clues."
Those two songs, and the three that follow, get the disc off to a rollicking good start, culminating in "Troposphere," a song that melds guitar and keyboard effects with a catchy melody to create an embracing groove. Listening to it, I can just picture a room full of men and women in Care Bear T-shirts holding up lighters and swaying back and forth. Then, just as I'm starting to think Burns really is a mighty little man, the disc gets quiet. The ballads aren't necessarily bad, but clumped together in the middle they feel like a puddle: they're watery and they trip up the pace he'd established.
Keep your finger near your FF button, because things pick up again. "Superstrings" is a psychedelic rant at someone who crashed his "subatomic particle breeze." And the final track proves that whether or not he makes it as a rock star, Burns is a brilliant musician. "Henry Krinkle's Lament" is lush and aching; part space age, part age-of-Aquarius. He starts off the disc full of bravado, showing off his mighty little self. But by the time Henry Krinkle shows up, the superhero has lost his luster. He may not be there to save you. "Just because your life was wasted/ Doesn't mean that I should save it/ I'll sit at home and watch TV," he sings. Just as in "What I Do on Saturday," the lyrics are a bit cryptic. But the music conveys his sorrow.
In the liner notes, Burns makes a playful attempt to answer a question he is frequently asked: Is the disc for children? I tried to come at an answer myself. I followed my children around for a week, asking them what they thought about these catchy songs about superheroes and astronomy, only to be met with responses like, "Can we listen to 'Annie' now?" and "Is Steve finished with college yet?" (Though I've been told that "Mighty Little Man" makes my daughter have to jump on the bed.) I can tell they'll soon be fans. This is the perfect music for those who are too old for The Wiggles and too young for John Mayer and for those who need licensed characters to feel young.