[19 August 2014]
“Someone Else”, the opening track on Dead Stars’ debut album, is like a pleasant blast from the past. This catchy, fuzzy piece of guitar pop recalls that period just about 20 years ago when the grunge of the early ‘90s gave way to the brighter, more adventurous tones of mid-‘90s alt-rock. A whole host of bands had their one hit and their brief moment in the spotlight in the years between the death of Kurt Cobain and the rise of Britney Spears. “Someone Else” would fit snugly on the radio between the likes of Toad the Wet Sprocket, Deep Blue Something, Dishwalla, and Del Amitri.
In the pre-iTunes major record label boom time of the ‘90s, if you liked a band’s hit single, the only way to own it was to buy the entire album. Slumber, by virtue of leading off with Dead Stars’ catchy single, unintentionally mimics that often disappointing experience. This is an album chock full of perfectly pleasant, mildly catchy, and super-bland ‘90s-style alt-rock. Tracks like “Daylight” and “Never Knew You” are just fast enough to be uptempo without crossing into punk territory, with solid melodies delivered by the workmanlike singing and guitar playing of Jeff Moore. They’re the type of songs that are unobtrusive to listen to while never really sticking with the listener.
It works essentially the same way with nearly every song on the album. The delicate acoustic centerpiece “Older” has serviceable lyrics and decent harmonies on the chorus. The equally delicate acoustic closer “Heal Over Time” hits the appropriate note of hopeful melancholy to finish the record, but can also be best described as “serviceable”. The mid-tempo “Walking Away” opens with a bracing Dinosaur, Jr.-style guitar tone and riff then immediately backs off of it for a much more pedestrian verse and chorus. It only returns to that tone between verses and for the guitar solo, which serves to give the song just enough spice to be a general disappointment overall.
Things get worse for Dead Stars on “Summer Bummer”, a song that seemingly wants very badly to be a Fountains of Wayne song but can’t manage a strong enough melodic hook or lyrical point of view to succeed. Similarly, “Dreaming to Forget” is a disappointing swing at a big power ballad, complete with Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins guitar fuzz on the chorus. The lyrical climax, “You wake up when I sleep / I sleep when you’re awake / We make up ‘cause we’re dreaming to forget”, is actually not bad for the era the band is aping. It’s too bad that the vocal melody doesn’t have any punch to it, causing the whole song to fall flat.
While most of the album finds the band, particularly Moore, stuck searching for a musical hook that makes more of an impression than “well, that was pretty good,” there is an exception in the high speed, high energy “Crawl.” There’s urgency and tension in the song’s guitar riff, and the rhythm section follows Moore’s lead effectively. Even Moore’s vocals have energy on this one, despite being in a relatively low register. Moore’s commitment to low vocals over the track’s first three quarters pays off in the end, when he jumps up an octave for a final chorus that actually reaches its intended climax.
Between “Crawl” and “Someone Else”, Dead Stars shows that they have the ability to write songs that echo their chosen era without copying it completely. Unfortunately, two good tracks out of twelve don’t really make a strong album. If Dead Stars is going to continue playing ‘90s-style alt-rock, they need to do a better job of studying the bands that were able to develop an audience beyond a single hit. And they need to write better melodies and more interesting guitar riffs. That would help a lot.