Reviewed on this page:
Repercussion - Christmas Time -
The Sound Of Music - It's Alright -
Continental Drifters -
Out Of My Way -
The Robust Beauty Of Improper Linear Models In Decision Making
North Carolina's gift to 80s rock, the dB's were one of those smart, trendy, talented bands that critics love and the big record companies don't know how to sell. Part of their problem was the lack of a gimmick like the Go-Go's' Barbie-doll sex appeal, the B-52's ridiculous 50s kitsch references, or U2's strident, self-righteous politics.
Instead, they offered solid songwriting, crafted harmonies, and the image of well-mannered and slightly geeky college kids.
Their first two, and apparently best albums were released only in Britain (they were re-released later by IRS records), and they never had a major radio hit on either side of the Atlantic. So more than a decade after they recorded their last album, the band has been mostly forgotten. Anyone who's familiar with their best work will think that's a shame.
Admittedly, the dB's failure to hit the big time was partially self-generated. Singer-songwriter Chris Stamey formed the group in the late 70s after bouncing around in assorted North Carolina bands like Sneakers and Secret Service, where he'd played with such musicians as Will Rigby (who joined the dB's) and Mitch Easter (who produced REM's early records).
Stamey soon moved the dB's to New York and brought in keyboard player Peter Holsapple.
By the time the band had gotten a recording contract, Holsapple had switched to guitar and developed his singing and writing talents to the point where they equalled or exceeded Stamey's.
But Stamey quit the band after they had recorded just two albums, leaving Holsapple to keep things going. Alone, Holsapple was unable to expand the group's musical horizons, although he replicated their earnest harmonies and chipper pop songwriting. Not surprisingly, the group faded out in the mid-80s.
Since then both frontmen have recorded multiple solo albums, and they also reunited for a respectable 1990 duet album. In the mid-90s Holsapple moved to New Orleans and joined the 80s all-star band the Continental Drifters.
I don't have a complete collection of Stamey and Holsapple's solo or band catalogue, but I'm working on it.
The band has an official web site. (JA)
Gene Holder (bass, some guitar), Peter Holsapple (guitar, vocals,
keyboards), Will Rigby (drums, some keyboards, backing vocals), Chris
Stamey (guitar, vocals, keyboards). Stamey quit, about 1984. Holder moved to guitar, replaced on bass by Jeff Beninato, before 1987. Group disbanded, 1987.
Stands For deciBels (1981)
This is a remarkably solid effort that heralds the transition between late 70s New Wave and 80s college rock.
With a finger-snapping beat, spunky horn section, and strolling organ part, "Living A Lie" sounds exactly like contemporary Elvis Costello; "We Were Happy There" leads in a Cars-style synth part, and "In Spain" with a withering, Television-like guitar line.
But it's hardly out-of-date: the exciting, fast-paced "Neverland" sounds just like an early REM rocker, and "pH Factor" is nearly identical to any of that band's tossed-off surf-rock instrumentals.
On a few numbers like "Happenstance," the group finds its own niche with angsty, intricately produced, and closely harmonized love songs - some of them so slowed-down and whiny they're annoying ("From A Window To A Screen"; "Ups And Downs," with more Cars synth), but most of them good clean fun ("Amplifier," with a funky Bo Diddley beat; the mid-60s Beatles-y "Ask For Jill" and "I Feel Good (Today)").
This formula is especially effective on the stately and heart-wrenching "Nothing Is Wrong."
In sum, the album is worth tracking down if you have any interest in early 80s alt rock.
Produced by REM mainstay Scott Litt; Andy Clark adds a few keyboard parts.
The 1989 re-release includes hysterical liner notes by Holsapple and Stamey. (JA)
It's A Wonderful Life (Stamey: 1982)
Stamey was still in the band at this point but recorded a solo album anyway.
The players here include Mitch Easter and Ted Lyons. (JA)
Like This (1984)
The group's first post-Stamey record. (JA)
Instant Excitement (Stamey: 1984)
This is an EP including a cover of "Instant Karma." (JA)
Christmas Time (Stamey: 1985)
The story here is a bit confusing: the original 1985 LP apparently was beefed up by new tracks recorded in 1993 for a 17-song CD re-release, and I can't tell which tracks are which.
Either way, it's not nearly as bad as you'd think, being carefully recorded and tacky only on the comedy numbers.
Stamey wrote a good chunk of the material, but the dB's contribute Holsapple's entertainingly sarcastic "Holiday Spirit" and a jokey cover of Jose Feliciano's incredibly grating "Feliz Navidad."
Meanwhile, Alex Chilton covers a Mel Torme number ("The Christmas Song") and appears with Big Star on one of his own tunes ("Jesus Christ"); the omnipresent Syd Straw is showcased on "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear"; and a bunch of tracks feature unknowns like singer/songwriter Ted Lyons (his country-western sendup "The Only Law That Santa Claus Understood") and Brent Lambert (his pretty acoustic guitar instrumental "Silent Nocturne"; his and Kirsten Lambert's take on "Silver Bells" is the only really trite moment on the record).
The collection is wildly uneven, hitting bottom with a couple of tunes that feature tinny-sounding mid-80s synth parts (Cathy Harrington's "Sha La La"; Stamey's boring space-mantra instrumental "Snow Is Falling"), but most of it is reasonably tasteful, mid-tempo rock.
Mitch Easter and Jim Dickinson are among the players. (JA)
The Sound Of Music (1987)
With Stamey long gone, Holsapple was totally in control: he wrote everything and created the same sound on almost every track.
The result is an upbeat effort that avoids any of the tacky, unnatural aural gimmickry of so much mid-80s rock - only one tune has audible synth ("I Lie").
Instead, practically every song follows the band's enduring, guitar-based pop formula: there are a ton of hook-laden, mid-tempo rockers like "Never Say When," "Think Too Hard," "A Better Place," and the Beatlesy "Feel Alright," and a few dramatic ballads like "I Lie."
That said, Holsapple doesn't break much ground and hardly ever varies the pace.
There's just one slightly goofy joke tune (the cowboy anthem "Bonneville"), one sharp country-western ballad ("Never Before And Never Again," with Syd Straw sharing the lead vocal), and one number with mild funk and boogie influences ("Working For Somebody Else").
None of the individual tracks are weak, but the record as a whole doesn't show much artistic development.
Produced by Greg Edward.
Additional guests include Van Dyke Parks, cellist Jane Scarpatoni, and Benmont Tench. (JA)
It's Alright (Stamey: 1987)
... but not exactly brilliant.
By now Stamey was eager to smooth the edges off of his songwriting with trendy, super-slick late 80s production values - just what you'd expect of his only major label release.
He cobbled together a large group of players that included some East Coast music scene regulars: Mitch Easter, Anton Fier, Bernie Worrell, Jane Scarpantoni (cello on "The Seduction," a sleepy, anomalously acoustic ballad), even Richard Lloyd (guitar) and both Alex Chilton and Marshall Crenshaw (backing vocals).
But all that does is make the playing faceless and overpracticed, with echoey drums, warm, fuzzy synths, and coldly professional bass lines (title track; "In The Dark").
Even the gimmicks don't work: the neurotic synth riff on "If You Hear My Voice" is just plain distracting.
Still, Stamey's talent is evident despite all this.
"Cara Lee" is a solid, moderately punchy dB's-style love song; "From The Word Go" tries hard with the harmonies; "When We're Alone" has some danceable funk bass; the ballad "27 Years In A Single Day" has a pleasant, mellow country vibe, belying an awful synth line; and there are a handful of Lloyd's brief, slightly dissonant guitar solos ("Big Time," which also adds pedal steel to what otherwise sounds like a quality dB's rocker; the over-produced "Incredible Happiness," with a cutesy refrain and lots of interesting touches).
But all of this merely adds up to yet another irritatingly insincere late 80s pop-rock album.
Mostly produced by Stamey, with a couple of tracks produced by Scott Litt. (JA)
Mavericks (Holsapple & Stamey: 1990)
Try to imagine REM with soaring, Beatle-esque harmonies, clever, fully intelligible love song lyrics, and an unobtrusive, low-powered rhythm section. Now try to imagine that nobody would want to hear such a thing. It's true: the former leaders of the dB's couldn't sell two copies of their one-off reunion record. But it's an immaculate low-budget production, with consistently solid songwriting that's split evenly between the two of them (they collaborated only on the gorgeous "Angels," and there's a shimmering cover of the Byrds' "Here Without You").
Acoustic guitars dominate, but there's also some low-key electric guitars, 12-string, and keyboards.
It's a bit monotonous because the low-budget atmosphere leaves no room for studio experimentation: there isn't a synth in sight, and the no-name guest artists don't help, with pedal steel on "Haven't Got The Right (To Treat Me Wrong)" being barely audible, and several cello parts by Jane Scarpantoni never really registering.
But Holsapple and Stamey have enough wit and craft to mostly succeed with their jangly-guitar-and-vocals pop-rock formula. (JA)
In 1991 Holsapple was featured prominently on REM's Out Of Time.
Fireworks (Stamey: 1991)
This is a respectable return to form, with Stamey emphasizing mid-tempo, guitar-based rock songs that recreate the dB's harmony-laden alt-rock sound without going overboard with glossy 80s production values.
The better tunes consistently deliver clever harmonies and catchy refrains, whether smiley-faced and upbeat ("The Company Of Light"; "Time Is Running Out"; "I Want You") or wistful and moody ("Glorious Delusion").
There's not a lot of stylistic variety, but thanks to a bottleneck guitar part "Perfect Time" does recall George Harrison; "On The Radio (For Ray Davies)" really does sound like a good-quality 80s Kinks anthem; and "The Newlyweds" and "The Brakeman's Consolation" both mine the genteel country-blues sound that was a stock in trade of 80s alt-rock bands like REM.
There are some problems, including some formulaic songwriting, a pointless, dreary feedback collage ("Fireworks (Still Life #5)"), and a slightly corny if heartfelt country-western standard ("You Don't Miss Your Water").
But the record is nowhere near as irritating as It's Alright, even if it's less consistent than Mavericks.
Produced by Stamey; the band is Stamey, Faye Hunter (backing vocals), Mitch Easter (guitar), Graham Maby (bass), and usually either Anton Fier or Ed Shockley (drums).
Holsapple plays a major role, appearing most often to sing backing vocals, and there are a bunch of guests including Peter Buck ("Brakeman's Consolation") and Gene Holder. (JA)
Ride The Wild Tom Tom (1993)
I've got this one. It's a lengthy compilation of demos cut by the original four-man lineup before they recorded their first album, highly uneven in quality but mostly entertaining.
Some of the songs were re-recorded on their later studio albums, so they're not very enlightening, and the tracks are shuffled together in non-chronological order, so you don't get any sense of how their sound progressed as Holsapple was gradually integrated into the band.
Still, though, it's a respectable companion to the rest of their catalogue. (JA)
Paris Avenue (1994)
A collection of demos for what was supposed to be the band's next album. I have it and I think it's pretty uneven. (JA)
Continental Drifters (Continental Drifters: 1994)
Holsapple next formed a sort-of supergroup, also fronted by ex-Bangle Vicki Peterson and ex-Cowsills-cute-little-girl-with-a-tambourine Susan Cowsill.
Their self-produced debut is an inoffensive, indistinct, overcluttered, low-energy rock record ("Highway Of The Saints").
A lot of it is mid-tempo stuff with slide guitars providing a slight country twang (bassist Mark Walton's "Get Over It").
Lead guitarist Robert Mach&edacute; (ex-Steve Wynn band) and Walton just don't do much; with Peterson and Maché handling guitar, Holsapple mostly sticks with his superfluous organ swells; and drummer Carlo Nuccio writes and sings a chugging honky-tonk number ("Mezzanine") and a vaguely Springsteen-esque feel-good rocker ("New York") - he sounds rather unpleasantly like NRBQ singer Joey Spampinato.
With so much talent in the group, they nonetheless stuff the record full of covers like the Stax-Volt style "Soul Deep," the middling Goffin-King tune "I Can't Make It Alone," the Monkees' cheery country-rock song "Some Of Shelly's Blues," and a muddy, overlong take on Gram Parson's generic "A Song For You."
Holsapple's only contribution is a plodding quasi-sea chantey ("Invisible Boyfriend"), and Peterson's is a far too quiet pop-rock tune ("Mixed Messages").
That leaves Cowsill's relatively melodic "Desperate Love" as the best of the originals - which isn't saying much.
Pleasant and carefully practiced, the record lacks almost any spark of emotion or spontaneity, and fails to deliver even a single stand-out track. (JA)
Out Of My Way (Holsapple: 1995)
This has the air of a low-budget release on a minor label (New Orleans' Monkey Hill Records), and with all the tunes except the demo-like "Shirley" being copyrighted 1992, my guess is that Holsapple couldn't get his previous record company to release it.
That's amazing, because this is not just the best album discussed on this page, but one of the best efforts this decade by any veteran rock star (or should-be-a-star).
Everything works, with impeccable harmonies, clever hooks, gritty performances, and wrenching, introspective lyrics, slipping effortlessly from strutting, melodic rock ("Meet Me In The Middle"; "Don't Worry About John"), to haunting balladry ("No Sound"; the country-western flavored "I Am A Tree"), to stripped-down acoustic guitar singalongs (the biting, satirical love song "Pretty Damned Smart").
Sure, Holsapple is still an unreformed pop-rocker: like several tunes ("Here And Now"), the title track recycles the dB's famously disarming, slightly saccharine innocence - but does it brilliantly, adding in an extraordinary Beach Boys-style break.
The flaws are trivial. There's a little bathos on the plodding "Couldn't Stop Lying To You," and a short running time that leaves you begging for more.
Spend what you have to if you're lucky enough to run across this thing.
The half-dozen supporting players include Benmont Tench. (JA)
The Robust Beauty Of Improper Linear Models In Decision Making (Stamey & Ross: 1995)
Stamey now threw his fans a total loop, recording a basically unlistenable 19-track album of improvised noisemaking with avant garde guitarist Kirk Ross.
It's much like Henry Kaiser's equally misguided 80s efforts: bleakly underproduced, without a rhythm section, it's full of howling feedback, aimless riffs, sporadic amateur percussion (some of it by Ed Butler), self-consciously freaky electronic tweaking, and a parade of pompous, punning track titles like "While Watching The Led Zeppelin Reunion" (believe me, I'd rather do that any time).
Moody, unfocused, and humorless, it simply alternates between louder and (more often) softer versions of the same bland blithering.
Alas, they do happen to bury some not-quite-riff tunes in this mess: their creepy New Wave freakout "(I'm 'In' With) The Out Crowd," featuring yet more feedback (by Ira Kaplan) and a distinctly Afro-Cuban beat; "The Indianapolis Two Thousand," with a Fripp-like acoustic arpeggiation; the bizarre hippy blues "Dog Worrying About A Bone"; and similarly fractured jazz minimalism on "Puzzle" (in two versions).
An excellent case against the imposition of abstract expressionist theory on music. (JA)
In late 1998, Peter Holsapple went on tour as a backing musician with the vastly less-talented Hootie and the Blowfish (go figure). (JA)
Vermillion (Continental Drifters: 1999)
A second release by Holsapple's new band, now out on Razor & Tie records.
This time they're much more serious, writing all their material and even re-recording "Meet Me In The Middle" in a blatant attempt to jack up the record's commercial potential. (JA)
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