Dust Star Give Power-Pop a Serrated Edge on Open Up That Heart

The early 2010s music scene at Purchase College in New York just keeps on giving.

More formally known as the State University of New York at Purchase—or SUNY Purchase—the school can make a reasonable claim as an incubator for Mitski, Porches, Frankie Cosmos, Crying, LVL UP, Sheer Mag and the excellent Double Double Whammy record label.

Anyone who was there would probably also tell you about all the great acts from Purchase whom you haven’t heard of. Maybe they’d talk about Sirs, a catchy punk band that featured Justin Jurgens’ screams backed by members of LVL UP and Sheer Mag. Or perhaps they’d point to Cende, a group of Purchase grads—including Porches drummer Cameron Wisch on lead vocals—whose 2017 album #1 Hit Single might’ve fulfilled its title in a world where the listening public craves a cross between Carl Newman’s pre-New Pornos project Zumpano and Texas poppy punk gods the Marked Men. (What a world that would be!)

Cende came to an end not long after releasing #1 Hit Single, and some have—or at least one has—wondered what Wisch has been up to. Here’s the answer: Making music with his ol’ Purchase pal Jurgens from Sirs, under the name Dust Star. And get this: Their debut album Open Up That Heart sounds like a poppier Sirs and a punkier Cende. It sounds like power-pop with a serrated edge and its heart beating out of its chest. It sounds very, very good.

Here’s the difference between Dust Star and many of the bands you’ll hear labeled as power-pop: This is rugged stuff, rooted more in the grimy Dirtnap Records brand of pop-punk or Sloan at their most swaggering than the relatively sweet sounds of Big Star and Teenage Fanclub. The drums are frenetic and persistent. The guitars sizzle crisply, like a live wire downed in a storm. Oliver Hill’s bass lines bounce up and down the staircases in your skull. Wisch and Jurgens share vocal duties, sounding at top speed like the aforementioned dudes from Sloan (on “Nothing in My Head”), and, when they slow down, like the Beach Boys (on the title track).

In between, they just sound like two guys whose pop-song acuity cannot be contained by their punk-rock impulses. Songs like “Too Late” and “Miles Away,” for example, put the pedal to the metal musically, while Wisch and Jurgens deliver vocal performances that are impassioned and imperfect—even strained, sometimes—but they use long, drawn-out notes and barbed harmonies to build interesting and unexpected tunes. The same principles play out in another buzzy punk number, “Get a Grip,” until Dust Star cuts through the tension and the whole thing collapses into a Dirtnap-gone-doo-wop chorus that’s darn near danceable.

Elsewhere, Wisch seems to edge Dust Star a little closer to Cende’s territory. “Work It Out” is slower but still jittery, complete with a couple of short, spacey instrumental sections that sound like a glimpse of the Pixies. “Can’t Stop Thinkin’ of You” feels spacious and surprising, thanks to its roller-coaster verses and a very pronounced tempo change in the chorus. And the restless, propulsive “Feel It Without Trying” might just sport the catchiest melody on Open Up That Heart, which is saying something.

Dust Star do let off the gas once on their debut album, and “I’m Waiting for You” works as a mid-album breather. It’s quiet and acoustic and pretty, and it’s also evidence that Wisch and Jurgens are at their very best when they’re playing irrepressible pop songs at punk speed, as they do up and down Open Up That Heart. The folks back in Purchase should be very proud.

Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.