THE NEW RETRO
With few exceptions, bands that 'pay tribute' to a bygone era lack the musical acumen to render convincing genre-specific songs
Is retro a good thing?
As subjective as any answer to that question might be, here are my two cents: In general, no. With few exceptions — ’90s bubblegum pop band Jellyfish being one powerful example — bands that “pay tribute” to a bygone era lack the musical acumen to render convincing genre-specific songs while infusing them with enough originality to avoid the label “derivative.” To do this consistently, over a period of years and a series of albums, is even more challenging.
Fact is, most bands worth immortalizing in tribute did exactly the opposite. They pulled from artists past, yes, but created a sound all their own, a sound that often evolved. But the eras in which these artists functioned are often labeled as genres themselves, and thus are burdened with legions of modern-day rewinds.
The most pilfered of musical decades is, by far, the ’70s, possibly because of the variety it offered. The ’80s, too, have been the subject of too many bands’ affection. But the ’90s have yet to experience a healthy bit of pirating.
Maybe it’s too soon. Maybe the grunge and college rock of that decade haven’t matured enough to warrant fond remembrance. Maybe the short-lived era isn’t worth revisiting at all.
Don’t tell that to Brooklyn’s Dead Stars, whose singer/guitarist Jeff Moore and drummer Jaye Moore are, incidentally, from Jacksonville. The trio hits 5 Points’ Rain Dogs on Friday, June 27. Their just-released album, Slumber, sits firmly in the “I remember when” category, with 12 quick-burst ’90s-styled pop songs that recall Gin Blossoms more than Alice in Chains.
And so the question remains: Is that a good thing?
Album-opener “Someone Else” says … “Yeah, maybe.”
Again, this is purely subjective, and if you’re not a fan of early-decade ’90s alt-pop, you will hate this shit. But if you dug Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You” or any of the Cave Dogs’ Joy Rides for Shut Ins record, then Dead Stars is right up your avenue. “Someone Else” is fuzzy, poppy, melodic pre-grunge, and unashamedly so. Even the guitar solo is a short-but-sweet tip-of-the-hat to the anti-shredder vibe of those early alt-pop bands.
“Summer Bummer” keeps rolling with the same driving formula that plays out over the course of Slumber. This is a great tune, very early Seattle-sounding, and just short enough to qualify as exciting. “Daylight” falls into the same category, a warm, mid-tempo drive through Gin Blossomsville, as is “Never Knew You” as well as several other excellent tracks.
There are a couple of acoustic tunes embedded here, and their presence is questionable. Can’t blame the guys for changing up the batting order with a couple of pinch-hitters, but I’m not sure they were swinging for the fences with these selections. Of course, amid the more aggressive alt-rock herein, these purely acoustic songs — “Older” and “Heal Over Time” — are bound to sound a bit out of place, a little too organic for the surroundings.
It should be noted that, really, the early ’90s bands to which Dead Stars is paying homage owe a debt of gratitude to The Smithereens. And, honestly, I love that. An under-appreciated group if ever there was one, The Smithereens paid tribute to the bands of their teen years, and did so in a respectable way. That may be what Dead Stars is trying to achieve here. And, for the most part, they succeed.