I don’t know how the hell to approach this record. Gene Dante and the Future Starlets, despite being based around the corner from me (Somerville, MA), are brand new to me, and their sound is actually decidedly different. That’s not necessarily a good thing — but it’s not always a bad thing, either. Part cabaret, part lounge, part musical theater, part rock and roll with a dash of punk thrown in for good measure, it’s an eclectic mix, to be sure. At its best, it’s a sort of a Cramps-meets-Rocky Horror-meets-Richard Cheese hybrid. That may sound like a nightmare, but when it hits, it’s pretty sweet. It’s just that it doesn’t always hit.
Gene Dante has apparently been entertaining in some way or another for years, in musical theater and music, and his influences are apparent right from the start. His stint with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, his early exposure to bands like Kiss and Queen, they all play a roll in his unusual brand of music, and you can pick the various pieces of his puzzle out of each song on The Romantic Lead. My first time listening to the album, I admit I was thoroughly unimpressed. The instrumentation isn’t anything technically fabulous, and nothing that I heard really blew me away. On the second pass, I started to sit upright a bit, and on the third, I was really paying attention. Because no offense to the Future Starlets, but Gene Dante is, for better or for worse, the real star of this particular show.
There are two main things that make the good songs stand out — the lyrics, and Dante’s rather impressive voice. His voice is perfect for this music. Initially he seemed like just another cheesy lounge-esque imitator, someone capitalizing on the novelty of albums like Lounge Against the Machine and the swing and lounge revival of the early aughts. However, his voice is a powerful tool and a vital part of the experience, a smooth, flexible force that he uses as its own instrument. The lyrics are wry, witty and clever, but without being pretentious. The songs have a sort of fabulous trashiness to them, bringing out visions of highballs and skewed ties, but also sour mash and face-down-in-the-gutter mistakes. So yes, every song isn’t a success, but it can certainly be entertaining as hell.
The opening track, “A Madness To His Method,” really sets the stage, and Dante’s flair for theatricality is front and center. The chorus (“I am gorgeous / I am without disease / there is nothing in this brave new world / wrong with me”) proclaims an egotism with a healthy dose of irony, and it works. It switches between gentle crooning to soaring bridges, and when he passionately cries out to “watch me falling, falling down, down” it evokes images of stars (or starlets, if you’ll forgive the play on words) crashing to earth and landing in the mud. The instruments are, for the most part, workmanlike, simply a stage for Dante to perform on.
It’s only on tracks like “C Star” that the instruments play a larger role (although it does feel like they’re channeling some crazy hybrid of Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name?” and Rocket From The Crypt), with punchy horns and a great twangy guitar. There’s an uncomplicated, but effective, guitar solo and one can easily envision Dante twirling around his mic and shimmying his ass off. It’s fun stuff. Similarly, “When The Starlet Hits The Wall” (sense a trend here?) switches between short bursts of Police-like guitar and swooping breakdowns.
“C Star” (video is somewhat NSFW-ish)
It’s not all martinis and roses though. “The Dreamer” is a slower, more schmaltzy track that is, to be honest, just kind of boring. Dante’s voice is certainly very strong, but the song itself just struck me as lackluster. Lyrics like “I will trade you all your tears for dreams” are likely to make people wince, regardless of whether their intent is ironic or not. The instrumental arrangement, which is done well in some tracks, is pretty blah here. That instrumental arrangement is the key to the successful songs — it’s less about the musician’s talent and more about how their sound is utilized. “Photo Synthetic” is another one where his voice is at the forefront, but the song just falls flat. “Brian, My Darling” seems more well-suited for a Broadway musical. It’s not that it’s a bad song, it’s just that it fails to incorporate some of the elements that make his other songs succeed, focusing too much on one particular influence.
There’s no question that Dante has talent. His voice is unquestionably charismatic, and when he nails the songwriting and music composition, it’ll get people on their feet, swinging their dates around with reckless abandon. Unfortunately, the album is simply inconsistent. It’s not a bad album, it’s just that probably 40-50% of it seems to lack focus or purpose. But once you figure out your favorite tracks, you’re likely to have a good time with them. I’ll keep an eye on Gene Dante — I’m willing to bet he could put on an engaging show, and it’ll be interesting to see where they go, and if they can take what works best and build on it.
TK writes about music for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.