The dB’s: A powerful pop return
Often marginalized, power pop is a genre that not only refuses to die but which ages more gracefully than almost any other sound in rock. Gray hair or baldness, middle-age paunches, the “hip factor”—nothing else matters so long as a band can still deliver an exuberant explosion of sound and songs that you feel as if you’ve been singing your whole life from the very first time you hear the chorus. And on Falling Off the Sky, for the first time since 1982, the original members of the dB’s return to prove they’re masters of the form.
Though the musicians all hail from Winston-Salem, North Carolina—and grew up worshipping their Southern progenitors Big Star (as well as the Beatles of Revolver)—guitarists, vocalists and songwriters Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple, drummer Will Rigby and bassist Gene Holder first came together as the dB’s in New York in the wake of the punk explosion of the late ’70s. Out of touch with the prevailing ethos from the start, they joined the Bongos and the Feelies to build a short-lived but memorable pop scene centered at the small but justly renowned rock club Maxwell’s, prompting The New York Rocker to dub Hoboken, New Jersey “the new Liverpool.” But they also won a strong following in the U.K., and more than any of their fellow travelers, they seemed poised for stardom on the strength of their first two brilliant albums: Stands for Decibels (1981) and Repercussion (1982), both originally released on the British label Albion.
Alas, it was not to be—cult legends they were and remain—and Stamey left in the early ’80s to become a solo artist, producer and collaborator in myriad other projects (including the Golden Palominos) while Holsapple continued to lead the group through two more albums (Like This in 1984 and The Sound of Music in 1987) before serving as a much-sought sideman to the stars (with R.E.M. during its last great stretch and, less memorably, with the post-platinum Hootie and the Blowfish). Neither ever was quite as strong without the other—like Lennon and McCartney, Stamey’s experimental artiness is perfectly balanced by Holsapple’s heartfelt earnestness—and though they reconnected several times over the years as a duo (producing Mavericks in 1991 and hERE aND nOW in 2009), they never quite matched what they’d done in the dB’s.
That isn’t a knock but a compliment to Rigby’s intricate yet hard-hitting drumming and Holder’s stoic but undeniable X factor. The songwriters may also have worked just a little bit harder, feeling as if they had to live up to the name. Or maybe it was just timing. Whatever the reasons, Falling Off the Sky is a set of songs that are the strongest as a whole that they’ve produced in 30 years, embracing the history—“The Wonder of Love” is their best use of horns since Repercussion, while the psychedelic epic “The Adventures of Albatross and Doggerel” is the “Tomorrow Never Knows” they never got around to writing the first time—yet undeniably vital and firmly based in the present. The opening track “That Time is Here” sets the tone with an explosive denunciation of living in the past—“You’d better wake up, wake up, wake up/That time is gone!”)—even as it’s ironically decorated with a garage-rock organ straight out of ? and the Mysterians.
From there Holsapple and Stamey alternate tracks, sometimes trading roles (Stamey delivers his most romantic tune ever with “Before We Were Born,” while Holsapple’s lilting “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Anymore” doesn’t hide the former New Orleans resident’s anger at the way this country failed in response to Katrina), but always delivering the goods: witty turns of phrase, hooks galore, arrangements that twist and turn without ever losing the plot and of course massive, instantly unforgettable choruses. All the while, the rhythm section keeps things rolling, albeit at slightly slower tempos than in the past, with Rigby even stepping forward to offer a brief intermission from the main match with the slightly goofy but irresistible lover’s lament “Write Back,” which stands the dB’s version of Bill Berry’s “Don’t Go Back to Rockville.”
Welcome back, boys, we’ve missed ya. And three decades hardly seems like an unreasonable wait when the comeback is as strong as this one.
The dB’s, Falling Off the Sky (Bar/None)
Rating on the four-star scale: 4 stars.