The dB's
Strongest album: Stands for Decibels
Weakest album: The Sound of Music

The dB's tempered a knack for classicist power pop with a fondness for avant-garde sound effects. At their best, the dB's stretched the boundaries of the three-minute pop song to their limits, while never abandoning the pure-pop ethic. Founded by Chris Stamey, who already had several years of professional experience under his belt with the Sneakers (who released one obscure late '70s album and also included Mitch Easter, future R.E.M. producer and leader of Let's Active) and some solo singles, the dB's made the trek from their native North Carolina to the burgeoning New York new-wave scene. The early albums divided the songwriting between Stamey and Peter Holsapple, for a minor-league Lennon/McCartney tension. The ace rythm section of drummer Will Rigby and bassist Gene Holder was also an integral element to the band's unique sound. In their prime, the dB's provided a fresh twist on classic pop.

Stands For Decibels (1981) ****

Their best album opens with the jangly, manic "Black and White", Rickenbackers zooming by a relationship gone sour and one of power pop's definitive classics. The contrast between Stamey's and Holsapple's styles makes for an effective tension. Stamey plays the eccentric, with wistful minor-key, slightly psychedelic songs that employ textured keyboards, odd sound effects, and oblique melodies; an exception is the ebullient "I'm In Love", boasting a great burbling bass line. Holsapple takes a more direct and emotional approach, with catchier and more conventional material. The weird bleeps and new-wave nervous edge keeps this '60s based pop (think the Beatles, Move, Nazz, Small Faces, Zombies, even the Turtles) from ever sounding retro - not to mention overly cute and precious, a trap they barely skirt by. Few albums pay this careful attention to production and sonic detail. Just listen to the backwards piano in "She's Not Worried" - it's not mere sonic embellishment, it's the bedrock of the song. A perfect under-two-minute miniature "Big Brown Eyes" showcases the virtues of Holsapple's relative simplicity. The hushed ballad "Moving In Your Sleep", which Holsapple admits is an attempt to capture the Big Star sound of Sisterlovers, provides another highlight, as do "Bad Reputation" and the instrumental band collaboration "Dynamite".

Repercussion (1982) ****

The dB's second album sounds more polished and modern than the debut, which ironically makes it sound more dated 16 years later. Other than that, it's only of slightly less quality than the debut. Both Stamey and Holsapple provide some airy, melancholy ballads ("From A Window To A Screen", "We Were Happy There"). Stamey gets more straightforward and Holsapple more experimental, and Will Rigby's drumming is brought to the fore in the mix, especially on "In Spain" and "Ask For Jill". The manipulative "Happenstance" and cheery "Ask For Jill" (which has a telephone call for a neat break) are Stamey's highlights; the driving "Neverland" and the soul-horn inflected "Living A Lie" are Holsapple's. Another winner from these all-American Anglophiles.

Like This (1984) ***

Chris Stamey left after Repercussion for a solo career, leaving the dB's a much different-sounding band. Holsapple admirably takes on the extra songwriting weight, penning all the tunes with quite solid results. However, the band has shedded all its intriguing quirks, and sounds unnervingly normal. These straightforward rock-pop songs are pretty good, but there's a million bands performing this style of rock-pop - what we need are the weird ones like the early dB's to keep things interesting. Despite the increase in facelessness, the band manages to maintain an identifiable, likable personality. Holsapple moves the band in a more country and American direction, in contrast to the first two albums' British influences. The obvious single "Love Is For Lovers"; the anti-nostalgiac "Lonely Is As Lonely Does"; and the surprisingly dancey (!) "Spy In The House Of Love" are the highlights of an fairly entertaining, if underwhelming, collection.

The Sound Of Music (1987) ***

Sounding ever more country and American, Holsapple comes up with another set of fine roots-pop tunes that barely avoids sounding generic. Over the course of 14 songs, I find that it all starts to sound the same after a while, and in the quest for neo-roots authenticity Holsapple seems to have misplaced a few necessary pop hooks. However, nearly all of these songs are well-crafted and would make good cover material for anybody interested - beats John Hiatt by miles, not that that says much. Ten times better than your average hit album coming out of the Suburban Cowboy realm of Nashville/Austin, not that that says much, either. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's a pretty good country-rock album, about on the level of Wilco or Son Volt if not Uncle Tupelo, only that good country-rock albums by their lackadaisical nature have a hard time getting me excited. Highlights include the Southern-rock "Doraville"; the standard-in-the-making "Think Too Hard"; and the populist "Working For Somebody Else".

Ride The Wild Tom-Tom (1993) ***1/2

Demos and outtakes from the pre-Decibels era, it's a fun little mess that's more interesting and entertaining than the band's last two albums. It captures the raw excitement of a young band testing its formula and discovering its sound. Like nearly all compilations of this type, it's wildly inconsistent, and hardly the first place to start for the uninitiated. For fans, though, it's essential, with plenty of gems scattered amongst the odd experiments and throwaways. Oddities include a commercial jingle for the New York Rocker; a Hendrix parody called "Purple Hose (Slight Return)"; and a mockery of punk, "Hardcore Judy". Stamey's "What About That Cat" and Holsapple's "Death Of Rock" are two of the highlights.

Chris Stamey & Peter Holsapple: Mavericks (1990) ***1/2

A mostly acoustic singer-songwriter album that reunites the two ex-dB's, it contains some of the finest songwriting of their careers. It's relaxed and mature, with little of the weird edges and energy of their youth; in fact it's a perfect campfire album, with gently strummed guitars and pleasantly melodic tunes that search for fresh angles on the time-worn subject of love. As usual with a project involving Stamey, the production's excellent, though more artfully subtle than in his days with the dB's. The collaboration, "Angels", along with Stamey's "Geometry" and "Close Your Eyes", and Holsapple's "She Was The One" and "Taken", are high points of this charmingly low-key effort. An excellent Byrds cover, "Here Without You", is the icing on the cake.

Chris Stamey: It's Alright (1987) ****

Stamey released a couple of other solo albums before this one that are more experimental, not to mention harder to find. This one's a straightforward pop effort with quirky production touches - just like the dB's, though Stamey generally stays stuck in midtempo, lacking the natural exuberance one gets from a full working band. Helped out by the likes of Richard Lloyd and Alex Chilton, it's mainly Stamey doing what he does best, with a melodic sense that's only improved (or at least grown more direct) since his dB's days. The title track is a stunner, a richly melancholy atmospheric ballad that is one of the best things Stamey's ever done. The melodies capture a plaintive neo-sadness perfect for a listless day, with "When We're Alone", "Of Time And All She Brings To Mind", and "27 Years In A Single Day" excellent examples of Stamey's tunecraft. Only a shade or two less interesting than the first two dB's albums.

Chris Stamey: Fireworks (1991) ***

Stamey reportedly was inspired by film scores to create a cinematic album, and that's the problem - like a lot of film music, it creates a mood but doesn't leave you anything to hold on to. Slower and more diffuse than previous efforts, Stamey's songs sometimes seem to drift away. However, his facility for melody and texture remains intact, making "Company Of Light" and "Glorious Delusion", along with a few other moments, memorable. "On The Radio (For Ray Davies)" borrows a klassic riff but otherwise has nothing to do with the Kinks beyond the title. The cover of "You Don't Miss Your Water" sounds oddly mechanical. Not really that bad, but I almost never play it.

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Reader Comments


Get jiggy with Chris' other solo albums. Instant Excitement, It's A Wonderful Life, his singles are great also.

Check out Peter Holsapple's "Out of My Way" from 1997, and his continuing work with The Continental Drifters.

What? No mention of Will Rigby's solo work?

Philip P. Obbard,

Glad to seem someone remember the dBs. I actually have never heard their 3rd and 4th albums, but I think the first two are tremendous - roughly equal to the much-more-hyped- but-similarly-cult-worthy Big Star.

RIDE THE WILD TOM TOM was nice, but (1) didn't run chronologically, which I found made it harder to listen to, and (2) while it included the b-side to their very first, pre-Holsapple single ("If and When"), it *doesn't* include the A-side, "(I Thought) You Wanted To Know".

So, for a fellow dBs fan, I direct you to: ... where you can find an MP3 of this track!!

B. Burks: "(I Thought) You Wanted To Know" as far as I'm aware is only available on CD on the now out-of-print DIY: American Power-Pop 1978-1980 Rhino compilation, which also has loads of great, sometimes hard to find stuff, by 20/20, the Shoes, Plimsouls, ex-Blondie bassist Gary Valentine, Prix, Romantics, Off Broadway USA, etc. -- highly recommended! BTW, "(I Thought) You Wanted To Know" was written by Television guitarist Richard Lloyd.

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