Review: The dB’s – Falling Off the Sky (Bar None, 2012)
Way back in the early 1980s, when only graduate students and industrial researchers had access to the Internet, information about bands spread much more slowly. And so the dB’s first two albums, originally released on the London-based Albion label and imported back to the group’s native U.S. shores, were difficult to learn about, harder to find, and even trickier to put into context. Bits and pieces of the group’s background eventually circulated, with Chris Stamey’s tenure as Alex Chilton’s bassist providing a tantalizingly obscure connection to the ultimate cult pop band, Big Star. Stamey, Gene Holder and Will Rigby’s earlier work as Sneakers also resurfaced, providing a link to Mitch Easter, and thus to REM, and eventually scenes in Georgia, North Carolina, New York and beyond.
A special edition of the group’s second album, Repercussions, was accompanied by a bonus cassette of their debut, but even this promotion couldn’t push the records from great reviews to great sales. Stamey left the band to pursue a solo career, and Peter Holsapple led the band on albums for Bearsville and IRS. College radio managed to launch REM into the mainstream, but the dB’s (despite an opening tour slot for their Athens-based comrades) couldn’t convert cult popularity into commercial success. The group disbanded in 1988, spinning off solo careers, occasional collaborations (particularly between Stamey and Holsapple) and eventually a new edition of the band for 1994’s IRS-released Paris Avenue.
Thirty years Chris Stamey left the original quartet, they’ve rejoined for Falling off the Sky. Three decades on, their voices are still easily recognized and their musical ideas still combine easily, but the result is something different as fifty-somethings than it was as twenty-somethings. Their fans have aged as well, growing from college students into parents, witnessing the group members’ various pursuits, and seeing what was once considered alternative co-opted by the mainstream. So while the album doesn’t crackle with the reinvention of the group’s original debut, the musical affinities – the interlacing of vocals, the rhythm section’s play against the guitars – are still full of life, and connect strongly to the dB’s origins.
Peter Holsapple’s aptly-titled opener, “That Time is Gone,” suggests the group was acutely aware that a reunion could easily slide into limp nostalgia. With a rhythm guitar that touches on the Gun Club, a twist of Sir Douglas in the organ and a maddeningly insistent guitar figure, the lyric of middle-age awakening is like a weary postard from a well-traveled musician. Holsapple neither celebrates nor laments the passing of time, but notes it as an inexorable fact and moves on. Stamey deploys his nostalgia more abstractly, writing wistfully of lovers whose flame has flickered out, and matching Holsapple’s mood of disappointment without disillusion. The bitterness of the songwriters’ early years has mellowed appreciably, though Holsapple’s “World to Cry” offers some pointedly snarky recrimination.
The album closes with its title song, also the set’s most nostalgic, with vocal harmonies and counterpoints that twine around a lyric full of memories. The band’s off-kilter craft is as fine as ever, with Stamey’s love of psych-era Beatles threaded deeply into “The Adventures of Albatross and Doggerel,” drummer Will Rigby’s “Write Back” offering up his first song on a dB’s record, and Holsapple’s high, yearning vocal on “I Didn’t Mean to Say That” adding a particularly riveting performance. The foursome doesn’t imitate their earlier selves, as many reunions are wont to do, but their current-day selves prove sufficiently vital to carry the legacy, creating in an album that stands nicely alongside their first pair.