North Carolina singer/guitarist (and sometime trumpeter) Chris Stamey spent the late ’70s and early ’80s helping put the Southeast on the map as a preeminent nouveau pop zone. The creative progression — towards more complex ambitions and deeper emotional expressions than most of his musical neighbors — of this casually effective singer and superlative melodicist began in the collegiate Chapel Hill power pop legend Sneakers. Six quirky power pop originals engineered by Don Dixon, Sneakers was the first vinyl appearance of this seminal (if little-heard) band containing Stamey, drummer Will Rigby and (participating as a guest and family friend) Mitch Easter. The record boasts such lyrically anxious Stamey creations as “Love’s Like a Cuban Crisis,” “Condition Red” and “On the Brink.”
To get the folklore out of the way, Stamey soon relocated to New York, backed Alex Chilton, founded the dB’s with Rigby, Gene Holder and Peter Holsapple and then began a solo career before returning South and opened a studio with Scott Litt; Dixon established himself as a producer and solo artist; Easter, who also owns a fabled studio in North Carolina, is a well-known producer and, for a time, fronted Let’s Active.
The 12-inch In the Red, made after Stamey’s move to New York, is an extended family reunion in which Stamey and Easter combine their Angloid pop/rock with brooding quasi-baroque clavinet, the saunter of a Parisian boulevardier, even some avant-gardish desperation, all with an air of sophistication received in innocence. Besides a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Roadrunner,” the record features five songs penned individually by Stamey (“The Perfect Stranger,” “What I Dig”) and Easter (“Decline and Fall,” “Quelle Folie”) and a brief noir instrumental.
That same year brought the first dB’s record, a nifty 45 credited to Chris Stamey and the dB’s: “(I Thought) You Wanted to Know” (written by Richard Lloyd and played by three pseudonymous sidemen and David Bowler of the Marbles) b/w “If and When” with Holder and Rigby. (Lloyd finally released his song more than a decade later, on The Cover Doesn’t Matter.)
Secret Service includes the bassist of Sneakers, Robert Keely, plus other North Carolina pals who stayed put. The Dixon-produced record sounds more pro than Sneakers ever did and consequently lacks most of that band’s ingratiating twinkiness. The 12-inch includes one goody (“Backseat Sinner”) and three other tunes that are only fair. Easter guests on acoustic guitar.
Stamey stayed in the dB’s for two albums, Stands for Decibels and Repercussion, which contains his unforgettable “Ask for Jill.” Recorded before he bowed out of the band in late ’82, It’s a Wonderful Life (subtitled, on the back cover in reverse type, “It’s a Miserable Life”) takes him far afield from the offbeat Big Star sound. Joined by longstanding compatriots Ted Lyons and Mitch Easter, Stamey plays mesmerizingly moody and somber tunes (“Winter of Love,” “Depth of Field,” “Oh Yeah!”) and aggressive demi-pop (“Never Enters My Mind”). Elsewhere, he warps the lyrics of “Tobacco Road” over a nearly all-drums background (“Get a Job”), offers cynical humor about urban life in a jarring, percussive setting (“Brush Fire in Hoboken”) and plays a quiet piano piece with tape effects (the aptly named “Still Life #3”). The only relatively straightforward pop song is the bitter “Face of the Crowd.” Overall, a strange and unsettling album, filled with fascinating adventures and subcurrents of profound unhappiness.
Once out of the dB’s, Stamey had Don Dixon produce Instant Excitement, an equally odd but more upbeat hodgepodge — a homely reading of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” an idyllic love song (“When We’re Alone”), a frisky country-rocker and an instrumental opus, “Ghost Story.” The songs are more typical of Stamey’s original outlook and played with little attempt to impose a style in the studio. Eclectic and a little casually underbaked, but likable and, in spots, utterly touching. The ’92 It’s a Wonderful Life reissue includes Instant Excitement, a few bonus alternate versions and Stamey’s illuminating liner-note commentary.
The musicians who were credited on Instant Excitement also serve as the Chris Stamey Group on the delightful Christmas Time mini-album; the dB’s back him on the Brian Wilson-like title track. The original songs are all seasonal: “The Only Law That Santa Claus Understood,” “You’re What I Want (for Christmas),” “Snow Is Falling,” even a new acoustic version of the unexpectedly appropriate “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The reissue has a different cover photo from the same session (see Chris crinkled in laughter!/see Chris betray the faintest Mona Lisa smile!) and 11 added tracks (but one deletion). Among those bringing extra presents, Alex Chilton sings Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” and, as Big Star with drummer Jody Stephens, his own “Jesus Christ.” The dB’s do Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” while Holsapple renders “O Holy Night” on his own. Syd Straw gets off a good pun covering Blondie’s “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presents, Dear.” A warm, spirited winner — the more the merrier.
Stamey recorded and toured extensively with the Golden Palominos and then settled down to make It’s Alright — an emotionally lucid pop-rock album — with a snazzy collection of old and new friends. Chilton, Richard Lloyd, Anton Fier, Easter, Bernie Worrell and Marshall Crenshaw are among the players. The songs vary from boppy (“Cara Lee”) to somber (“The Seduction”) to loud (“Incredible Happiness”) to idyllic (“27 Years in a Single Day”) but Stamey’s dry, plaintive voice invests it all equally with peerless sincerity and familiar melodic appeal.
Stamey played second guitar behind Bob Mould on the latter’s first-LP tour in 1989; the next year, he teamed up with Holsapple for the magnificent acoustic-flavored and country-accented Mavericks. This major career highlight for two singer/songwriters at the peak of their powers is a heartfelt and deeply moving collection that neatly delineates their differences and the points of their stylistic coincidence. With filigreed instrumental assistance from guitarist Dave Schramm, cellist Jane Scarpantoni, drummer Michael Blair and others, the pair sets its sights on dissections of romantic troubles (Stamey: “I Want to Break Your Heart,” “Haven’t Got the Right (to Treat Me Wrong)” and “Lovers Rock,” although his partner rues “She Was the One”) and satisfactions (Holsapple: “The Child in You,” “Taken,” “I Know You Will” and the stunning collaboration, “Angels”). Beyond the masterful performances, the record is loaded with enough heartbreaking harmonies and painterly production details to make every moment worth savoring.
Released in the same fruitful year, Fireworks is a more idiosyncratic collection of electric pop songs recorded over the course of three years with various associates, including Peter Buck, Graham Maby, Schramm, Easter, Fier and Holsapple. Traveling on familiar ground, both musically and thematically, the record benefits from Stamey’s advanced skill and creativity; the clear shift in perspective between a typically incisive, detailed and downcast narration of bellyflop romance like “The Newlyweds” and the intimately personal chronicles of “The Company of Light” and “Something Came Over Me” (a song that also appears in different forms on It’s a Wonderful Life, Instant Excitement and the original Christmas Time) describes the breadth of Stamey’s talent. The album also draws fascinating lines from the past to the present. Although a cover of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” suffers from incongruously mechanical sound, Stamey does better by train songs in “The Brakeman’s Consolation” and cleverly twists an old Kinks riff into an original homage to music’s power in “On the Radio (For Ray Davies).” Even the guitar jam coda of “All the Heart’s Desire/Black Orchids” shifts time frames to good effect. The circumstances of Fireworks‘ creation prevent the record from amassing momentum as it moves along, but many of the tracks are excellent.
Sprinkled throughout Stamey’s records are instrumental creations that are as much sonic experiments as formally constructed compositions. The 1995 collaboration with Kirk Ross (prepared guitars, etc.) fills an album with formidably fleshy, stylish and often dramatic improvisations. Yo La Tengo guitarist Ira Kaplan and percussionist Ed Butler help out, but the principals make most of the impressive noises, pastorals and handsome sound portraits themselves. Variously styling up a punk King Crimson, a less aggressive Einstürzende Neubauten and a drummerless jazz fusion group, Robust Beauty has extremely pretentious titles (“Bukowski Attends His Funeral March (Suite),” “The Arsonist and the Fire Engine,” “Staircase Descending a Nude” and, worst of all, “Meditation on a Theme”), but the music is far less precious and arty than they imply. Certainly a very different side of the pop auteur, but not a bad effort in this new realm.
On the other side of his personal coin, Stamey had a North Carolina band called Alaska, a relatively traditional (for him) rock trio with bassist John Chumbris and drummer John Howie. The group’s first release, a nifty six-track EP with production/playing help from Easter, was issued in mid- ’95 by the subscription-only Hello Recording Club. Investing songs with varying degrees of electric power, mild to biting, Stamey writes from a pointed and ironic perspective: the irresistibly harmonized “Stupid Pop-Rock Song” casts a condescending eye at his onetime stock in trade, while “Rock Manager” puffs up a big phony to prove how evil the species is. (The bracingly loud “My Advice to You,” meanwhile, makes sarcasm its own reward.) As these numbers measure the growing distance between Stamey and his past musical lives, “Yeahyeahyeah,” an oblique tribute to Miles Davis (especially in light of the Kirk Ross collaboration), points up new developments in his creative taste.
Stamey’s first solo album after more than a decade (spent largely as a detail-oriented pop producer working out of his home studio in North Carolina) is a bracing reminder of what an amazing pop auteur he is. Travels in the South is much more than a collection of hummable tunes (although it certainly is that) or an assertion of adult pop values (ditto). What Stamey has done is to dig into the well of his artistry, culture and personal experience the way a short story writer might; the album is in its way a self-portrait of the artist as a middle-aged (gulp!) Southern sophisticate resting from his many voyages. In the liner notes, Stamey ruminates on the role travel plays in the life of a musician, but there’s no heavy-handed concept dragging across the landscape here. The songs are thick with smartly arranged instrumentation (by such players as Ryan Adams, Ben Folds, Don Dixon and Jen Gunderman) but, behind Stamey’s dreamy voice, light as air. Highlights include the rousing “14 Shades of Green,” the witty, well-informed soul fandom of “In Spanish Harlem,” the clench-jawed “The Sound You Hear” and the philosophical-religious consideration (done up like a Beach Boys vocal fiesta with a Steely Dan-style breakdown coda) of “Kierkegaard.” Travels in the South is power pop at its absolute, adult finest, by one of the all-time great practitioners of the art form.
An early-’90s resurgence of label interest in Stamey’s back catalogue brought Sneakers’ oeuvre to CD for the first time. Recasting the group’s history somewhat to paint it as a revived partnership of Stamey and Easter (thereby relegating Will Rigby, Rob Slater and Robert Keely to alumni status), the rich Racket contains beneficial remixes, previously unissued tracks and three of the band’s ’70s songs re-recorded for the occasion with Gene Holder. An amazing example of ingenuity overcoming technical limitations, Racket is weird, wonderful and winsome. To celebrate, the duo played a ’92 Sneakers reunion concert in a Winston-Salem record store.
Ride the Wild TomTom gives equally offbeat belated treatment to the dB’s. Rather than a compilation of the band’s four albums, the 26 tracks — with the exception of four songs from singles — are demos and outtakes, half of them cut in 1979 at the New York Rocker magazine office. (“I Read New York Rocker,” however, was recorded in North Carolina. Go figure.) Holsapple’s liner notes call these “home and field recordings,” and they surely do have the raw, new wave enthusiasm of a young band having a blast putting its abundant ideas on tape with minimal input or interference from the real world. With that in mind, the raveup cover of the Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live for Today” has all sorts of resonance here.