Living in the shadow of a famous relative has to be tough. No, seriously. As much as I despise nepotism, it has to be difficult to define yourself when you are consistently an afterthought. Preconceptions of genius in the blood lineage almost guarantee a proclamation of mediocrity for these siblings, children, and kin (though at least partly because many of them happen to be profoundly mediocre).
Dennis Coyne, ringleader for Stardeath & White Dwarfs, however, does not seem the least bit ashamed of his uncle Wayne’s influence on him. And who could blame him? The frontman and vocalist for the Flaming Lips is perhaps one of the coolest guys on the planet, the kind of dude music-obsessed burnouts across the US wish they had for a weird uncle. He’s somebody who could turn them on to bizarre music, introduce them to a hoard of icons, score them some serious icky sticky, and get them a contract with Warner Brothers. So why should Stardeath & White Dwarfs’ lead singer hide his affection? After all, the elder Coyne spent years chasing after a kind of inverted waveform of the Butthole Surfers, not to mention the times when he accidentally ripped off Can, Yes, and Cat Stevens. The Flaming Lips have remained endearing and enduring despite these lapses of unoriginality, and there’s no reasons any blood relatives can’t do the same.
Therefore, it’s perhaps of little surprise that Dennis Coyne’s gang of fellow Oklahomans have a space rock aesthetic—cobbled together by way of familiar graphics, riffs, vocal stylings, and timbres—that resembles an early ‘90s version of the band’s current tourmates, the Flaming Lips. I can forgive the flattery of mimicry, and I have half a mind to suppose that many fans who cherish the period circa In a Priest Driven Ambulance, before all the Lips infused themselves with the collagen of symphonic-prog, will too.
The problem, then, with Stardeath and White Dwarfs is how conservatively they seek to enact their tripadelic journeys. Their lack of sudden euphoric bursts or brain-frying tape loops almost makes it seem like the band’s plea to differentiate themselves involves a retreat from the exuberant energy and urgency of their elder cosmic travelers. Were the imitation of the Flaming Lips more complete, it may have resulted in a more dynamic outing than The Birth. A perfect example of this wasted potential can be heard in their gleefully epic cover of Madonna’s “Borderline” from last year’s otherwise worthless Warner Brothers compilation Covered, a collaboration with none other than the Flaming Lips that swells with an ecstatic endorphin rush of noise as easily attributable to recontextualization as it is to whimsical arrangement.
It’s not that the tempos don’t start grinding and the volume doesn’t get cranked in parts (Stardeath and co-producer Trent Bell share the Flaming Lips’ proclivity for grinding the loudest parts against the mix’s peak capacity and thus distorting the fuck out of the audio). It just sounds a little over-rehearsed and strained when they do so.
Take the two-part suite of “The Birth” and “Those Who Are from the Sun Return to the Sun”. “The Birth” commences with an open space narrative colored by vapor trail vocal harmonies. Then a crunchy fed-back guitar part starts in contrived conversation with a more twangy guitar. As things slowly deteriorate, the breakdown into amorphousness seems almost inevitable, like a meet-cute in a romantic comedy. Then, from this placental ooze emerges an actual crying baby. It’s here that Stardeath and White Dwarfs wish to float about in the ether of discovery, at the cusp of possibility like the dawn of the next generation in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead, a few immodest sound effects float by and the next track surges in with a propulsive BPM and little else to show for it. “Those Who Are from the Sun Return to the Sun”, the only track on the album without vocals, feels like arch-builder with little feeling in it. Instead of a frenzied jam or a motorik exercise in anal control, the band lands somewhere between and winds up sounding a bit like they’re still rehearsing.
Luckily, what the band lacks in experimental edge or whim, it makes up for in pop sensibility. “New Heat” contains a rocket-tram beat and a pretty chorus that’s easy to pick up, and the oddball ethereal whistling throughout the odd time signatures of “Country Ballad” makes for a divine melding of My Morning Jacket and Pink Floyd.
Yet, even the band’s better moments seem to have made sacrifices for the continuity of the album. The acoustic strumming and mellow incanting of “Keep Score” are a hazy delight that feels like a chipper Modest Mouse, but the sound crumbles away in anticlimax at the end of the track for no reason. “I Can’t Get Away” definitely has the groove and the beat to be the obvious first single, but Coyne’s vocals are so lockstepped in sing-song pattern that they begin to get grating by song’s end. Likewise, “The Sea Is on Fire” kicks the album off with a chunky, phased, Monster Magnet-esque riff that plays to more celestial than raucous ends. However, the vocals sound like a slightly more irritating version of Black Sabbath’s “Lord of This World” and fail to rev up the listener for the album ahead.
A leitmotif that runs through The Birth’s mostly superfluous lyric sheet is the quest for a carpe diem sort of fun. “Your life… doesn’t look like much fun”, Coyne says on the first track. “Let’s have fun while it lasts”, he says on the last. Wedged between these sentiments is the disclosure “We’re having more fun than we’ve ever had”. The last statement is undoubtedly true, but it’s also hard to tell that this is the case at certain points on The Birth. Stardeath and White Dwarfs may be having a blast whilst creating their own music and simultaneously playing Rock Band, but on the listener’s end it often just sounds like they’re half-assing both.