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Regard the archetype of the happy American songwriter. Like the angstmeisters and the artsy guys in love with their own cleverness, he’s a subspecies of the thinking man’s songwriter. He emerged in the mid-’80s, bringing well-crafted music and a small-club-based social life to mildly hip and endlessly hopeful college grads across the nation. Neither a Reaganite nor a hippie, neither a country boy nor a classic rocker, he’s sometimes a nonbeliever in God but always a believer in good times, a captivating melody, and a steady backbeat. He’s almost always male and white, and often Southern—Research Triangle Southern, not Muscle Shoals Southern. He’s still in the music biz; lots of people who don’t know any of his records still call him “legendary,” and he’s the go-to guy for snappy production work, the occasional low-level supergroup, and a handy name to drop for the youngster who wants a certain respectability. He’s Don Dixon, Marshall Crenshaw, Matthew Sweet, Peter Holsapple, and, definitively on the new Travels in the South, Chris Stamey.
Until now, Stamey, best known for his work with fellow Carolinians– turned–New Yorkers the dBs, hadn’t released an album of new material in a dozen years. His fan base—the sort of Top 40–eschewing, gently aging listeners who aren’t hung up on timeliness anyway—will find Travels in the South worth the wait. Opening with the buzz of a prop plane—“prop” in both senses of the word—it builds ambitiously on a soaringly melodic sound and a thematic conceit that’s strangely true to life even as it’s patently theatrical. Stamey has said that the record is “a meditation on the late-’60s generation that I was a part of”; he’s also called it a response to the notion that “[i]t would be fun to just jam a bit sometime.”
And jam he does—though, amusingly, the track called “K Jam” is a mere one minute and 14 seconds. Indeed, lovers of that guitar-with-wings aesthetic will swoon with every swoop on the jazz-into-sunshine-pop “Kierkegaard” and the blues–by– way–of–Richard Lloyd “The Sound You Hear.” But Stamey makes sure to set up solid pop-song structures first, tying simply worded observations to singable tunes with just enough deviation from expected chord progressions to keep the listener alert. (“If there’s no God in the sky,” goes the existentially titled one. “And all you know when you die/Is a pretty dream/A lullaby.”) Accessible as hell—did I mention that the happy American songwriter is always accessible?—the songs gain heft from Stamey’s adventurous guitar coloration, unpretty tenor, and ingenious accumulation of ideas. He’s like the guy you think is normal, friendly, and maybe a little dim—until he drops some comment that’s devastatingly funny, profound, or just plain weird.
Case in point: “In Spanish Harlem.” Opening with a guitar motif lifted straight from Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock,” it continues as a strange fusion of lilting melody and over-the-top music-geekdom: The first line is “Kenny Burrell doesn’t know how to play out of tune.” After more nerdy tribute is paid (“Hal Blaine hits the drums so hard”) and the platitudes are trotted out (“We’ve never laughed so hard”), reality dawns with the wistful chorus: “Wait for me/I’ve waited all my life/To see the streets of Spanish Harlem.” To wit: The guy singing the song hasn’t been there. It’s all a fantasy, a lesser product of the same romantic imagination that spurred the Emilys Dickinson and Brontë into rich evocations of geographical and emotional places they’d never set foot in. It’s also audacious and silly and sweetly melancholy.
We were set up for the fantasy back in the R.E.M.-esque opener, “14 Shades of Green,” when, amid a sparely delivered travelogue of childhood haunts—“Here’s where we went to class/A hundred hours a day/Here’s where we’d smoke grass/And laugh our cares away”—our deadpan protagonist observes: “I want everything/That I’ve never seen.” It’s a search that Stamey continues with every roaming step of his strings and every note of that adenoidal, sometimes flat voice. His vocal weaknesses add vulnerability, for sure, but I’d still like to hear the lush, gloomy “Insomnia” voiced by Rufus Wainwright in high-art-pop form.
Speaking of lofty aspirations: The title “Kierkegaard” doesn’t bode well for the sort of “fun jams” Stamey claims to want on South. But then again, proving or disproving the existence of a deity might be academic. The song’s mackerel-sky brightness suggests that, as Prime Movers go, Stamey thinks Brian Wilson is a likely candidate, and the song eventually asks a question straight from the pop-music catechism: “Now that I hold you tight/Do you believe that there’s no God?” Cue a chorus of “bom-bom-bom”s and “ooo-ooo”s that wouldn’t be out of place on a Partridge Family album. The whole thing builds to a highly unfashionable and gorgeously modulated outro, with a full band swinging on some jazzy piano and electric guitar.
The same old classic-rock motifs, the same old midnight-philosophical ruminations, the same old love won and lost—somehow Stamey never makes them seem worn-out. It’s telling that “In Spanish Harlem” was, according to the liner notes, written from the perspective of two travelers, “perhaps from Brazil, who have come to New York City in a futile, confused, but highly rewarding search for the landscape they imagined in the Spectorian vinyl they love.” Absurd? Yes, but in the button-down mind of Chris Stamey, it makes perfect sense. After all, re-establishing simple truths can often take a little complex thinking.
Stamey put on his producer suit—I picture it as one of the Sgt. Pepper’s ones, albeit with a Stetson—for Sweetwater, the debut release by Tres Chicas, otherwise known as music vets Caitlin Cary, Tonya Lamm, and Lynn Blakey. For anyone interested in the kind of things Stamey would be likely to sit behind the glass for, expectations would have to run high for these graduates of Whiskeytown, Hazeldine, and Let’s Active.
The women manage to meet them, too, and without any of the self-conscious wackiness expressed in the press kit. Check it out: These gals met in the ladies’ room! Raleigh, N.C., roots-rock-club owner Van Alston originally dubbed them PWS, or Purty Women Singin’! And Blakey reveals that at practice, the Chicas usually end up dyeing their hair—or their clothes!
On “Desire,” a co-write by Cary, Stamey, and Whiskeytown colleague Mike Daly, Cary sounds uncannily like Linda Thompson at her ’70s vocal peak—a singer who could evoke sorrow without dreariness or self-pity. Blakey, as well, boasts an emotion-drenched alto, backed on “Sweetwater” by harmonies as pure and unaffected as anything Parton, Ronstadt, and Harris ever laid down.
Lamm’s voice is thinner and more plain-spoken but no less effective. Her innocence-lost tale “Foot of the Bed,” has the lightness of a lullaby despite its Church Lady lyrics: “You’ve been sleeping in sin/Now the Devil wants in.” And Loretta Lynn’s “Deep as Your Pocket” allows Lamm to get down with the rest of the trio, honky-tonk style. For real, too: Some charmingly off-kilter guitar from Stamey is the closest thing to irony this affectionate homage offers.
Overall, Sweetwater offers clean, straight-ahead, relatively twang-free country with the added bonus of some pretty, delicate string arrangements. If the disc feels more like a demo than a fully formed project, it’s still an indicator that these Chicas don’t need Clairol to shine.CP
Stamey performs at 9 p.m. Thursday, July 1, at the Iota Club & Cafe, 2932 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. For more information, call (703) 522-8340.