Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey are such skillful songwriters that the angst on their new full-length Here and Now jostles tranquility and barely produces a ripple, but the disquiet is real. Like many of their renowned power-pop predecessors, they're Americans suffering from an advanced case of rocking Beatle-itis, which means Here and Now owes a debt to British Invasion pop. For all that, the once and future dB's songwriters carry the weight lightly, and create their own fraught, optimistic idiom.
North Carolinians whose formative influences were cerebral, songful pop groups such as The Move and Big Star, Holsapple and Stamey got together in New York in the late 1970s. Stamey had done time in Alex Chilton's band, while Holsapple had made tracks for Memphis, where he did a little recording before heading to the Big Apple. Stamey released one of the era's great singles, 1978's "(I Thought) You Wanted to Know," a collaboration with Television guitarist Richard Lloyd.
Credited to Chris Stamey and the dB's, the single didn't feature Holsapple, but it presaged the kind of speedy pop the band would perfect on their 1981 debut, Stands for Decibels. A sort of new-wave reworking of Memphis power-pop, the record came out of a couple of intense apprenticeships. "Memphis I lived in for three months," Holsapple says. "I got to do some great recording there at Sam Phillips Studio with [drummer] Richard Rosebrough. [That was] the foundation of what I first brought to Chris and the dB's."
Meanwhile, Stamey had worked with the mercurial Chilton, who opened up his bag of tricks to the younger musician. "He'd show me things he'd learned at [Memphis recording studio] Ardent," Stamey says. "Specific stuff like how to set a compressor for different effects, reverb techniques, how to coach a vocal performance, feedback and synthesizer tricks, nitty-gritty ways to get those unusual colors we hear on the Big Star Sister Lovers record, for example."
Stands for Decibels and its followup Repercussion were both released in 1981, and featured Stamey and Holsapple's songwriting along with the brilliant drumming of Will Rigby and Gene Holder's careful, economical bass guitar playing. The music was melodic, but the mood was tense, suggesting Big Star's jangle joined with the production aesthetic of Elvis Costello's Armed Forces.
"At the time of Stands for Decibels, I was not long out of music school," Stamey recalls. "I'd studied for years with a composer who was well versed in the language of 20th-century music and tape manipulation, and I think I had an agenda to try to bring some of those techniques into the guitar-drums-vocal songs we were writing."
They were an intense, disciplined band who were perhaps more at home in the studio than on stage, and if they never achieved the commercial success of comparable groups such as R.E.M. or XTC, their records stand as some of the finest of the decade. (Stamey left the dB's after Repercussion, and the band released two more albums before calling it quits in 1988, though Stamey and Holsapple say they're working on a new dB's project with the original quartet.)
Since then, Holsapple has recorded with New Zealand pop band the Chills and with the New Orleans group the Continental Drifters, while Stamey has released solo efforts and become an in-demand producer at his studio, Modern Recording in Chapel Hill, N.C. They continued to work as a duo, releasing Mavericks in 1991. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Holsapple left his home there and now lives in Durham, N.C.
Nearly twenty years after their first duo record, they sound a trifle more world-weary on Here and Now. The Katrina undertow is evident from the first notes of "My Friend the Sun," the Roger Chapman and Charlie Whitney song that leads off the record. "Although there's been rain / And it's coming again / Change has to be here, obviously," they sing.
"I had [Family's] Bandstand as a teen, from which 'My Friend the Sun' comes, and then I got Bandstand online a couple years ago and was pleasantly surprised at what a sweet and universal song it was," Holsapple says. "I cut a version in New Orleans with some friends, but the hard drive it was on went under in Katrina. So Chris and I cut it when we started the album in earnest."
The rest of Here and Now is equally accomplished. Rigby and Holder rejoin their old bandmates on the fuzzed-out "Santa Monica," while the title track demonstrates the harmonic verve that characterizes the record at its best. The angst and experimentation that colored their early work remain, but these men sound glad to be here now. As Holsapple says, "We are all still alive, healthy, making good music together. That, to me, is the silver lining of whatever cloud you might enclose our history in."
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