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The most significant pop-rock event of the year was surely the Benny & Joon-engendered chart success of the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” which dragged the Scots-rock duo’s Sunshine on Leith into the Top 40. Trouble is, it’s not clear what it means.
Was the record purely a novelty hit? Or does it indicate that there’s still an audience for melody, wit, and sparkling arrangements, if only those listeners hadn’t been disconnected from the music biz by market fragmentation and promotional channels that favor the faster-reacting (but frequently fickle) patrons of hiphop and grunge?
Though it’s the latest album from the severely writer’s-blocked Scots, Leith is five years old, and it sometimes seems there’s so much pop-rock archival work to be done that new examples of the genre aren’t really necessary. Big Star has turned a one-shot reunion gig into a new album, and Tommy Keene’s last two releases have come out of the vaults, judiciously mixing the never-heard with the little-heard. Pulse‘s Nesbitt Birely recently lamented the lack of current recording contracts for the likes of Keene and Dwight Twilley, but it might be more useful (especially considering the quality of Twilley’s more recent work) to get the Dwight Twilley Band’s 1976 debt, Sincerely, back into print than to gamble on his ever recovering that album’s shimmer.
It is, for example, hard to imagine ex-dB’s singer/songwriters Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple making new music, either together or apart, that has the jumpy rush of Ride the Wild TomTom, the newly released Rhino collection of demos and such recorded between 1978 and 1982. (Most of them predate Stands for deciBels, the quartet’s 1981 debut long-player.) The 26-song, 69-minute collection has a sense of pop-rock glee that keeps one eye on the constricted, anti-pleasure rhythms of post-punk; if Big Star reimagined the Beatles through the lens of the Velvet Underground, the early dB’s gave Merseybeat the stiff but potentially explosive swing of Gang of Four. DeciBels was dedicated to George Scott, the (then freshly OD’d) Contortions bassist, and at the same time Stamey was producing this luxurious if jagged pop he was also mixing the astringent Mofungo.
The band was originally Chris Stamey and the dB’s, formed after the release of “The Summer Sun,” the 1977 Alex Chilton-produced Stamey single collected earlier this year on Rhino’s Come Out and Play: American Power Pop I. Fresh from Winston-Salem via a stint as the bassist in Chilton’s New York trio, Stamey dominated the band’s early days, although the A-side of its first single, “(I Thought) You Wanted to Know,” was written by Television’s Richard Lloyd. (It’s on Shake It Up: American Power Pop II.)
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The B-sides of the first two singles are included here: “If and When” and especially the delirious “Soul Kiss” have deconstructionist tendencies yet never completely bust apart. Edgy yet tuneful, this is pop as prickly as the art-funk the band’s no-wave pals were making. The band was ultimately inherited by Holsapple, but here he’s the new boy, content to be second-string songwriter and contribute the pumping, swirling, pitch-bending organ that made the dB’s pathfinders of the neo-psychedelic movement.
There are other tracks that will be familiar to dB’s completists, including unreleased early versions of such songs as “Nothing Is Wrong,” “Dynamite,” “The Fight,” and (bringing the material up to the end of the Stamey era) “A Spy in the House of Love.” There’s also a studio take of “We Should Be in Bed”—previously available on Start Swimming, a live compilation of Yank bands in Britain—and a speedy rendition of “Judy,” dubbed “Hardcore Judy,” that keeps pace with contemporaries like Minor Threat. The album is filled out with instrumentals, reprises, and a jingle: “I Read New York Rocker,” a paean to the monthly punk tabloid whose offices served as the studio for 12 of these recordings.
That leaves an album’s worth of freshly uncorked material, and if those 12 songs don’t top deciBels or 1982’s Repercussion, they sound a lot smarter and livelier than the latest from a score of power-poppers. Though not as apocalyptic as Big Star (especially Sister Lovers/3rd), this music makes the most of the tension between its heady energy and ebullient melodies and its rueful sentiments. If “We Should Be in Bed” updates “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the ’80s, songs like “You Got It Wrong,” “She’s Green I’m Blue,” and “What’s the Matter With Me?” skew teen-pop’s teen-love bounciness for abashed tales of awkward adult relationships. “You got it/You got it/But you got it wrong,” sings Stamey, a lyric that could express either the shortfalls of romance or the band’s jumbled refashioning of its Beatles-era models.
Such songs aren’t blithe by any means, but neither are they defeated. As Stamey reaches for the high notes in “Everytime Anytime” and the playful “What About That Cat,” so the dB’s kept striving—for love, for art, for the mainstream acceptance that may yet be theirs (if only they’re chosen for the right movie soundtrack). Rough as the playing and the recording sometimes are, some of these songs are lushly expansive: The harmonies give “Nothing Is Wrong” the celestial sweep of late-’60s Beach Boys, while Will Rigby’s distinctive drumming provides a mock-symphonic grandeur. Perhaps the giddiness of a jubilantly angular song like “Walking the Ceiling (It’s Good to Be Alive)” is impossible in the death-tripping ’90s, but it doesn’t sound antique. “Can you look at me and say/It’s good to be alive?” asks Stamey. Ride the Wild TomTom can.
An expansion of a 1985 release, Chris Stamey and Friends’ Christmas Time was originally a Chris Stamey Group EP with a guest appearance by the then-Holsapple-led dB’s on the pleasant, Stamey-penned title track. The new version adds 10 songs to the original seven, including both new stuff and previously available tracks like Big Star’s “Jesus Christ.”
The latter isn’t exactly a Christmas song, and neither were all the selections on the original, which included alternate versions of such Stamey Group tunes as “Something Came Over Me” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and offered lead vocals to all Stamey’s band members (keyboardist/vocalists Cathy Harrington and Mary Mac, and drummer Ted Lyons). Those tracks are here, but so are such doggedly seasonal amendments as Wes Lachot and Stamey’s “Christmas Is the Only Time (I Think of You),” Holsapple’s “O Holy Night,” and Chilton’s “The Christmas Song.” A lot of this is somewhat icky, which gives added importance to the original’s comedy number, Lyons’ “The Only Law That Santa Claus Understood.” In this goofy escapade, Lyons imagines Santa as a sixgun-shooting card-cheat; unfortunately, most of Stamey’s other friends take the holiday altogether seriously.
Followers of the Winston-Salem/Hoboken axis will probably want some of this stuff. The dB’s sound brisker than they have in a decade on “Holiday Spirit” (apparently a 1993 recording), while Syd Straw puns with a version of Blondie’s “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presents, Dear.” (It’s spelled “presence” on the inside.) Stamey’s new track, “Occasional Shivers,” is a bland ballad, though, and there are enough cocktail-lounge guitar-picking versions of holiday standards here to qualify the album for upscale shopping-mall muzak. For the gift that gives on giving, Ride the Wild TomTom would be a far smarter choice.