Recording of July 2004: Travels In the South

CHRIS STAMEY: Travels In the South
Yep Roc 2033 (CD). 2004. Chris Stamey, Jefferson Holt, prods.; Don Dixon, Greg Elkins, prods., engs.; Tim Harper, Brian Paulson, John Plymale, Wes Lachot, Logan Matheny, Dan Korneff, engs. AAD. TT: 52:30
Performance ****
Sonics ***

Power pop may well be the hardest of all the rock-related genres. To be successful, you've got to crank out a steady stream of catchy, hook-filled melodies—and as anyone knows who's ever tried to write a song, those are damned hard to come by. After Mozart, Gershwin and the Beatles in their early years, few have ever done it with any consistency.

But in music, as in the war of the sexes, hope springs eternal. If anyone is qualified to try to assemble an album of alt-rock/power pop, it is one Chris Stamey. A founding member of the same late-'70s/early-'80s Southern alt-rock revolution whose most famous members are R.E.M., Stamey is best known for his time in the power-pop band Sneakers, and the late and immensely influential New York cum North Carolina alt-rock quartet the dB's (with Gene Holder, Will Rigby, and Peter Holsapple), whose legacy now rivals even that of the supposed forefathers of southern alt-rock, Big Star.

Guitarist-singer-songwriter Stamey has worked as a sideman with Big Star frontman Alex Chilton, and has released a number of solo albums since leaving the dB's in 1983. The highlights are It's Alright (1987, A&M) and his last record before Travels In the South, the jazz-esque, instrumental-only The Robust Beauty of Improper Models in Decision Making (1995, East Side). Stamey reunited with old dB's member and longtime pal Holsapple in 1991 to collaborate on the worth-having Mavericks (Rhino).

In the last decade, Stamey has primarily stayed behind the glass, producing records by many artists, including Alejandro Escovedo, Le Tigre, Ben Folds, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Whiskeytown. The connection with Whiskeytown, whose lead singer and guitarist was Ryan Adams, provided Stamey with the inspiration for Travels In the South; he credits Adams, who sings on two songs here, with having "relentless enthusiasm" for the project and being its driving force. Although a "pit orchestra" of guest players help out here, the most famous are still Adams and Folds. Stamey's core band is distinguished in its own right, and is a Who's Who of many vintages of the North Carolina rock scene: bassist Danny Kurtz played in the Backsliders, drummer Jon Wurster was in Superchunk, and keyboardist Greg Reading plays with songstress Tift Merritt.

The album opens with "14 Shades of Green," a blast of power pop that immediately identifies Stamey as what he is: one of the finest, sweet guitar-pop songwriters ever to string a bunch of appealing major chords and basic rhythms together. Big Star might have invented this ride, but Stamey and his ilk put it on the road and pressed Go.

In "Kierkegaard," Stamey gets paying his respects out of the way by borrowing the vocal arranging and optimistic song turns of one of the genre's most pervasive spirits: Brian Wilson. This tune also features especially wonderful piano solos by Tyson Rogers. "Insomnia" (track four) is the kind of thoughtful near-ballad Stamey's always excelled at writing and performing. Buoyant pop returns on "Ride," this time with glockenspiel (or something that sounds like it), and Ryan Adams on duo vocals.

Where Travels reaches new heights is in the soaring "In Spanish Harlem." At first listen, the tune seems like an odd addition. Why is a white guy from North Carolina, with backup vocals from Tift Merritt, a white woman from Virginia, crooning lines about how he's waited his "whole life to see the streets of Spanish Harlem"? To be fair, Stamey lived in New York during the dB years. And strangely enough, Ben E. King, who made Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector's "Spanish Harlem" a hit in the early 1960s, was from North Carolina. Go figure.

"In Spanish Harlem," which bears no musical resemblance to the earlier hit, begins with the lines "Kenny Burrell doesn't know how to play out of tune / the orchestra swells across Fifth Avenue," and opens up into a big, fragrant blossom whose sheer enthusiasm for its subject overwhelms any doubts you might have. There are moments when it's so sweeping that you could easily mistake it for a show tune from some long-lost musical. Think of it as Stamey's ode to West Side Story.

Throughout the record, Stamey is in fine, clear voice and manages to tear into some decently inventive guitar licks when it's called for.

Problems here come in two sizes. On the small side, the prominence of the flute in the final two songs made the hair on the back of my neck stand up; power pop needs to be sweet, but this was positively saccharine—but then, I'm not a flute guy. It's just too precious.

A larger issue is the sound, which is just passable. Despite an accompanying biography that talks about Stamey's home studio, Modern Recording, having "vintage tube and transistor gear with state-of-the-art digital technology," the sound is not especially warm or dynamically rich.

Despite these misgivings, this is guitar pop ca 2004, honed to a fine, evocative edge. The drum sequence that ends the last track, "Leap of Faith," is a suitably inventive coda for a very welcome return.—Robert Baird