It’s difficult to understand why the dB’s’ first two albums — both well conceived and entirely accessible — had such a hard time getting released in the band’s own country. Formed in New York by four musicians who had moved up from North Carolina, they drew inspiration from ’60s pop psychedelia (and ’70s pop disciples like Big Star) and quoted freely from such sources as the Beatles, Move, Nazz, even the Beau Brummels. But Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, the group’s two guitar-playing singer/songwriters, each had too individual a style to merely parrot, and nearly every song has some new twist, whether through production effects (few pop records are as consistently aurally interesting as this without resorting to gimmickry), or an unusual instrumental or lyrical approach. Produced by the band and New York music journalist-historian-label-impresario Alan Betrock, Stands for Decibels is not a happy record — often as not the songs are about deteriorating relationships — but the playing is so exuberant that it’s uplifting.
Made in the UK with Scott Litt, Repercussion adds a number of flourishes to the group’s style. Litt achieves a fuller, more modern overall sound; instrumentation on many of the tracks is denser than anything on its predecessor. The Rumour Brass makes an appearance on “Living a Lie.” In addition, drummer Will Rigby — a rare rock drummer with a sound of his own beyond mere beat-keeping — is brought more to the fore on numbers like Chris’s “Ask for Jill” and Peter’s whimsically bitter “Amplifier.” Depending on one’s preferences in production style, Repercussion can be seen either as a great advance over the debut or as a glossing-up of the group’s sound. (Poorly packaged and carelessly programmed, Amplifier is a pointless 14-track regurgitation of the Albion era.)
Just as the dB’s finally signed to an American label, Stamey left for a solo career. With a little instrumental realignment (bassist Gene Holder moved to guitar), they recorded Like This as a trio. Although the reliance on Holsapple’s songwriting cut down on the band’s eccentricities, unpretentious intelligence, wit and ineffable pop smarts make it a wonderful album with no weak spots or inadequate songs. Dropping much of the British influence in favor of an Americanized, countryfied air, tunes like “Love Is for Lovers,” “Lonely Is (As Lonely Does)” and “White Train” carry the banner of romance disappointed into memorable settings. An instantly lovable gem.
Bearsville dissolved shortly after the release of Like This, leaving the group again label-less. (Like This was subsequently licensed by Rhino, gaining a CD release with two bonus tracks, including an extended remix of the excellent “A Spy in the House of Love.”) By the time IRS finally signed the band, the lineup had returned to a quartet, with the addition of New Orleans bassist Jeff Beninato.
The Sound of Music finds the dB’s continuing in the style of Like This, with similarly fine results. The country elements reappear on “Bonneville” (complete with fiddles and mandolins), “Never Before and Never Again” (a brilliant Holsapple duet with Syd Straw) and “Looked at the Sun Too Long,” which could easily be mistaken for a Gram Parsons tune. There’s still plenty of great pop, too, and the group gets heavy on “Any Old Thing.” Holder left to join the Wygals shortly after The Sound of Music‘s release; following one tour without him, the dB’s quietly split up. Holsapple subsequently toured and recorded with R.E.M. as auxiliary guitarist and keyboardist before concentrating on the Continental Drifters.
Following a long unscheduled delay while errant master tapes were being located, IRS reissued the band’s first two albums in late 1989, finally making the entire catalogue available domestically. Consumers should note that the IRS CDs are far superior to the now-deleted import versions, with improved sound quality and non-LP bonus tracks (“Judy” on the first LP and “pH Factor” on the second).
Rather than a compilation of the band’s four albums, the 26 tracks — with the exception of four songs from singles — on Ride the Wild TomTom 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.
Paris Avenue is a belated first issue of demos for what would have been the band’s fifth album.
The ingeniously titled tribute album is pretty good, with credible peers like Bill Lloyd, Tim Lee, Don Dixon, Steve Almaas and Bobby Sutliff doing able and, for the most part, unaffected renditions of the repertoire. Some of the arrangements take surprising liberties, but none lack evident respect and affection for the originals.
Rigby’s first solo record (released on a short-lived label operated by Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo) is a loopy laugh, a ramshackle one-man-band collection of country covers and likewise originals on which his kit is often the most prominent item in the mix. The singing is informal but engaging (as are his skills on piano, guitar, harmonica and other instruments); Holsapple’s occasional contributions don’t interrupt the casualness of this delightfully unselfconscious romp. Seventeen years later, by which time he’d played with such luminaries as Steve Earle, Kelly Willis, the Shams and Laura Cantrell (not to mention being the subject of a highly regarded, if unflattering, album by his ex-wife, Amy McMahon Rigby), Rigby released his second solo album.