Power-pop pioneers the dB’s are older, wiser, just as much fun
For fans of power pop who grew up in the South, the dB's are a rock and roll fairytale.
A group of guys who grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, playing ambitious prog-inspired jams when nobody else was doing it, gradually relocated to New York in perhaps the most magical time to be there: 1978. They recorded among stacks of magazines in the New York Rocker offices, to the sounds of gnostic chants bleeding through the walls, perfecting their own sensitive-yet-cynical, heedlessly sharp version of power pop.
The dB's also present a story of heroic obscurity. Even in their prime they never got much stateside recognition, and if it weren't for a few diehards and latter-day crate-diggers they might have faded into history. Luckily, the demise of the band wasn't due to outrageous self-destruction, but rather a group of serious musicians forced to accept the reality of their situation when the money didn't quite roll in.
Head songwriters and frontmen Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple went on to helm their own critically successful solo careers. Holsapple later served as sideman in Green-era R.E.M., while Stamey played with a variety of outfits, including Bob Mould and the Golden Palaminos. In 1991 Stamey and Holsapple reunited, releasing the well-wrought Mavericks before going their separate ways again. Nearly two decades later they followed it with 2009's Here and Now, and that time the union held, the proverbial "getting the band back together" finally came to pass, and calls went out to the rest of the band, drummer Will Rigby and bassist Gene Holder.
"I think when we were starting to look at stuff for a second duo album a few years ago, suddenly we had a few songs that really sounded like they would be best served with the dB's rhythm section in place,” Holsapple explained when I spoke with him and Stamey last week. “So, we have a fairly unerring sense of what would be best—the songs that we think of as a dB's song would be maybe a little more aggressive, keeping within a balance. There's a gentleness that pervades the duo records. You don't find anything nearly as heavy as 'Before We Were Born.'"
For his part, Stamey describes an even more detailed approach, "With the duo records, Peter and I try to have some Everly Brothers options, places where we can sing harmonies together; also, the instrumentation tends to match with a more restricted emotional range, there's a 'good guy' element. With this dB's record, there was a point where I wrote specifically for it—songs have specific themes related to my memory of our shared experiences growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, even if cloaked in obliqueness to some degree."
This past Tuesday, Falling Off The Sky, the dB's first original-lineup album since 1987, came out on Bar/None Records. In a departure from classic dB's rhythm-propelled fare, Falling Off possesses a singer-songwriter vibe more characteristic of Southern college rock—the foregrounded, melodic lead guitars, the minor-key lamenting vocals. It's also an L.P. that acknowledges the maturity of the group—the songwriting is heartfelt in a way that classic dB's recordings couldn't be called. However, there's no diminishing the fact that this album showcases the sheer tautness of Stamey and Holsapple's well-honed writing abilities.
The Stamey-penned "Before We Were Born" sounds, at first, like a mystical pick-up line surrounded by chunky riffs, and ends up feeling somber, tinged with a songwriter-as-narrator's self awareness. Following immediately is Holsapple's "The Wonder of Love," only slightly as saccharine as its title might betray; there's a pulsing horn section, thrumming organ, and lyrics decrying, "it isn't metallurgy/ it isn't rocket surgery," showcasing the dB's characteristic wordy wit (and making a nod to Sam Cooke in the process). Tracks like "She Won't Drive in the Rain Anymore," a lush ballad that addresses a family's harrowing evacuation from Hurricane Katrina, seem a little operatic for typical dB's song construction, lovingly draped with a full-blown string section.
To accompany their album release, the dB's are playing a clutch of gigs, including one last night at Le Poisson Rouge. While they've surfaced every now and then in New York venues, last night's gig was tinged with a sense of homecoming—after all, three-fourths of the band is based again in North Carolina, and it's a sincere reunion—not unlike their original migration. Despite the erstwhile Southern residency, Stamey and Holsapple agreed, the dB's identify strongly as a New York band.
"The first dB's single was actually a collaboration with Richard Lloyd from Television. Creative people have always flocked to New York. I was there for 13 years and it's a permanent part of my state of mind now; some part of me is always at a loft party in Tribeca."
Regarding whether or not it's still necessary for Southern bands to make similar journeys to the big city to facilitate hobnobbing and "making it," Stamey, who often works as a producer and mixer in the beloved Chapel Hill scene, clarified.
"I think it can happen anywhere, if you find inspiration. The dB's found a lot of inspiration in the New York of the late ’70s and early ’80s. It was truly the 'land of the free' at that time." (Below: the dB's on Avenue A, early 1980s. Photo by Stephanie Chernikowski.)
Holsapple also recalls those early days with reverence, but he isn't without any regrets.
"I would have loved us to be signed to a major American label and get our records out, and those fates did not conspire in our favor." However, he acknowledges a significant benefit of the band's truncated career: "In retrospect, some thirty-five years later, it's okay, because we have a fairly untarnished reputation. I think that's a nice thing. We certainly made the most of what we had. We made the best records we possibly could; we made records that would hold up thirty years later. I think they do." Stamey and Holsapple, whose collaborative compatibility obviously drives most of the creative energies of the band, write totally independent of each other.
"Chris and I both sort of have finished ideas in mind when we present the songs. And we usually run them by each other first to see if they're worth anything. We take each other's opinion fairly seriously," Holsapple said.
"We select the songs that talk to each other." Stamey added. "If he has one that pulls in one direction, I'm likely to suggest or write one that pulls in the other, and vice versa. We will shape arrangements and pick keys with this in mind, as well. But the main thing is that we write enough songs that we can pick ones that fit together and leave out the ones that argue amongst themselves too much"—therein lies the key to the even, consistent mood of the dB's oeuvre.
With a genre like power pop, the youthful abandon pervades the tone of the music. So, how do these seasoned songwriters, as older men, feel that their abilities have changed to reflect their life experiences?
"In terms of what I pull from writing a song, everything is still sort of in the traditional bass & drums, rock/pop soundboard,” Holsapple said. “I tend to think that all my songwriting is impacted by all the records that I've heard. I'd like to think that I'm an open-minded listener and that I've listened to so much music, it all informs what I'm writing, so if I were stuck sounding like ’78 again, I would feel as though I hadn't really made any progress."
Stamey added, somewhat philosophically, "We are better arrangers now. Personally, I couldn't have done the brass and string arrangements in the same way back then. Most all power pop is, lyrically, not something I can subscribe to. It's like everything else, the great stuff is not the low-hanging fruit—you have to hunt around. I am concerned that the harmonic vocabulary of popular music has diminished to such a frightening extent that its expressive options are collapsing."
Interestingly, this note of foreboding isn't simply the gripe of an aging musician. The dB's have aspired to be sonically and lyrically groundbreaking from the band's inception.
It's precisely these off-center attitudes that led the band to have a critical and cult following as opposed to an easily digestible sound. Falling Off The Sky embodies the work of a group who have always sought to escape convention even in their relatively accessible genre, albeit this time around, with a sense of reflection and the comment that comes from vast experience in an industry that never quite embraced them, as much as they might have wanted it.
The dB's are emblematic of an era of New York music as it impacted regions outside its city limits, but, fortunately, they're not a band imprisoned in such sticky nostalgia—as the album's opener suggests, "That time is gone."