Steve Burns was the host of Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues for six years. Blues Clue’s, for the uninitiated, was an incredibly popular children’s show in which Burns donned a green rugby shirt (every episode) and led children in a search of a hiding (or missing, it was never clear) cartoon dog named Blue. The search for the cartoon dog involved the discovery and analysis of many clues with Burns serving as the brains of the dog search and rescue operation.
2003 finds Burns and the rest of the Blue’s Clues franchise in retirement, so Burns has done what so many other children television hosts have done in the past — recruited Steve Drozd of the Flaming Lips to back him on an indie-rock album that is primarily produced by another Lips mainstay, Dave Fridmann.
If you are wondering what the hell is going on here, you are not alone. Thinking about this project before hearing a single note of the record leads one to come up with two explanations for how and why this record came about. One possibility is that Burns is some sort of musical genius who, up until now, has never been given the opportunity to share his musical gift with the public because he has been too busy tracking down lost dogs. The second possibility is that the Lip’s franchise — who have always had a tendency to be indiscriminate in the projects, tours, and partnerships they take on — decided that playing on a record with the Blue’s Clues guy would be awesome, so they showed up and put their otherworldly spin on what would have undoubtedly been an otherwise uneventful album.
The truth is probably somewhere in between these two explanations. There are songs on Songs for Dustmites that really shine. “Troposphere” is easily the album’s best song, a sweet song of catchy indie-pop that is bolstered by unmistakably Lips-ish effects. “Mighty Little Man” starts off the record with boisterous bass and drums that sound as if they were lifted straight off of the Flaming Lip’s last album. The fury of noise available on “Mighty Little Man” is incredible, but the inability of Burns’s voice to keep up with everything the Lips team is throwing at the young man reminds the listener that this is not a Flaming Lips album; it is a Steve Burns album. So while many of the songs are enjoyable (“What I Do on Saturday”, “Maintain”), it is uncertain if these songs are enjoyable simply because the record sounds like a Lip’s album, and it is hard to tell what, if anything, Burns is bringing to the table. Is this an album of Burns’s vision? Is the record simply bolstered by the Lip’s contributions, or does the presence of the Lip’s on the record turn a run-of-the-mill indie-rock record into something much more?
Perhaps an answer to these questions can be found by looking at the tracks on the album that are not permeated by Lip’s effects. “A Reason” is a decidedly un-Lips track; the song is subtle and mellow, full of regret and uncertainty. This track is simple and fresh, it does not feel like a Lip’s song and yet it is very nice, evidence that Burns can stand on his own. But this is the only example of that ability on the record. The other tracks that are thin on Lip’s contributions are much less successful. “Songs for Dustmites”, the album’s namesake, is unfortunate. An earnest ballad with heavy piano, the song fails probably because earnest ballads are rarely successful. “> 1” is another easy and simple track, but it doesn’t offer anything new to set itself apart from the hordes of singer-songwriters who pollute the landscape of local bars. “Stick Around” fails for similar reasons.
Overall, Songs for Dustmites is a nice record that has many strong moments. Taken as a whole, without consideration of who is contributing and what those contributions mean, the record is interesting indie-pop with excellent production and a range of sounds. The album is approachable and pleasant. Whether or not this appeal has anything to do with Steve Burns will be evident when Burns offers future work, presumably without indie superstars doing all of the heavy lifting. Songs for Dustmites is a successful album, but the caveat will always be that the reason for the success lies with the Lips contributions and not with Burns’s talent or vision. This was the gamble Burns made by calling in the big dogs his first time out. But Burns will not be able to hide forever. Eventually he will have to stand on his own, and only then will we know if he has what it takes to leave his canine rescue days behind him for good.