|Pop Culture Gadabout|
Saturday, January 06, 2007 |
( 1/06/2007 09:09:00 AM ) Bill S.
"DON'T KNOW MUCH, BUT I KNOW THAT WHAT I DIG IS THIS!" – Mention the dB's or Mitch Easter to most power-slash-jangle pop fans, and, most likely, you'll get a loud sigh o' pleasure in response. Much beloved by record shoppe habitués (like yours truly at the time) in the early eighties, the deeBs were the most criminally underappreciated southern pop band of the era (the most criminally overappreciated being, of course, R.E.M.) Their first two releases, Stands for Decibels and Repercussion, are still cited by true believers as pristine pieces of brainy jangle-pop, while Like This, produced after founding member Chris Stamey left to pursue a solo career, has its equally strong proponents (among 'em, this writer). Easter, in addition to fronting another underrated pop-rock group, Let's Active (perhaps best known for the sparkly "Every Word Means No"), was also producer for R.E.M.'s early releases. There's a lotta musical D.I.Y. history in those two names, in other words – and where the two first came together was in Winston-Salem, NC, with Sneakers.
Founded by future dB's Chris Stamey and Will Rigby, Sneakers released two indie EPs, Sneakers and In the Red, both of which received kudos in rockfan forums like Trouser Press and New York Rocker but largely went unnoticed beyond the fanzine press. The first six-song EP was the work of a four-man unit – Stamey, drummer Rigby, guitarist Rob Slater & bassist Robert Keely – while the second was the creation of a band in name only. Stamey and Easter (who'd joined the group for a gig at Max's Kansas City) put together Red as a duo, utilizing a few archival tracks featuring the rest of the players, along with future dB's bassist Gene Holder, but primarily playing most of the instruments themselves. With Easter sharing vocal responsibilities, the six-song set sounds as much like nascent Let's Active as it does pre-formed dB's.
Both EPs, along with nine other tracks initially produced around the same time, are now being re-issued by Collectors' Choice under the collegially pretentious title Nonsequitur of Silence. For fans of the sound, the collection provides a splendorous earful of early D.I.Y. popmaking. (A historically contextual parenthetical should probably be inserted here: when Sneakers was first released in '76, the best-known indie tracks were by the likes of Patti Smith, Television & Pere Ubu. The power pop boom that brought all those skinny tie bands into the public limelight wouldn't flower for at least another year, so this stuff was really ahead of its time.) Though the first six tracks, recorded lo-fi and mostly live by another name-to-be, performer/producer Don Dixon, primarily reveal a young band whose reach exceeds its grasp, Stamey's early compositions show the man's sense of minor key hookery was already keenly developed.
Opener track, "Ruby," gives a good idea of what we're in for. While it just barely holds together instrumentally – though Rigby's solid drumming grounds the track, Stamey and Slater's ramshackle guitar hooks struggle in spots to stay in place – the song also contains an irrepressibly catchy "talk is cheap" chorus. If some of Sneakers' experimental flourishes (in "Driving," the song's atonal guitar embellishments threaten to overwhelm Stamey's characteristically light vocals) take getting used to, by the fifth track ("Crisis"), the sound coalesces and pure poppery prevails. Lyrically, the songs – with their refs to the Kennedy era America – owe a debt to John Cale at his most geopolitical: even when he writes a paean to an unattainable girl, Stamey can't resist comparing it to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The debut's aural peak is its finale, "On the Brink," which just smashes through its tinny production right into yer living room. Makes you wonder what the full group could've produced if it'd stayed together longer.
This is not to put down follow-up In the Red, which in many ways shows quantum sonic leaps above its predecessor. It begins on a melancholy acoustic track, "Story of A Girl," about a suicidal young Eleanor Rigby type (nifty sitar by Stamey slipped in this 'un), then kicks up with the rollicking "What I Dig," which even manages to toss rockabilly hiccoughs into the mix. Stamey and Easter regularly throw in small off-kilter touches without (as in the first EP) overbalancing the songs. "Some Kinda Fool," for example, includes a bridge that hints of a previously unheard spy movie theme, but when it breaks into a Stamey/Easter sung chorus about a young heartbreaker who "likes girls," the song approaches harmony pop nirvana. More than in the first disc, you can really hear where these two pop smarties are headed: Easter's "Decline and Fall," f'rinstance, wouldn't have sounded out of place on Let's Active's own glisteningly creative EP debut, Afoot, five years later.
Most of the bonus material is on the same sweet level as Red, two stand-outs being "The Perfect Stranger," which has the kinda wuzzy harmonies Stamey would stretch even further in his solo work, and "Be My Ambulance," a proto-psychedelic song that you can imagine the Soft Boys recording. Of course, you get a coupla goofy throwaway tracks: in this case, a brief instrumental snippet of a more explicit faux spy theme ("Mark Peril Theme") and what appears to be a radio spot for B&G Pies, which sounds like a throwback to the days when bands like Shadows of Knight used to churn out radio jingles for potato chips or the "sold-out" Who sang about "Coke after Coke after Coke." "Love's Like A Cuban Crisis" even shows up in its original demo form, more simply entitled "Love that Girl" after its hooky chorus.
This is probably not the disc to introduce neophytes to either the sounds of the dB's or Let's Active. For that, I'd recommend the two Collectors Choice reissues of Decibels/Repercussion and Cypress/Afoot (though if you also happen upon the reissue of the Peter Holsapple-led deeBs, Like This, I'd advise you to snap it up, if only for "Spy in the House of Love"). But for those who've kept the chorus to "Ask for Jill" and "Make Up with Me" in their head for decades now, Nonsequitur of Silence is a revelation: a sign of greater things to come and a purty sweet deal all by itself. As the lads themselves croon, this is what I dig . . .
UPDATE: After posting the above at Blogcritics, I received the following message from dB's/Sneakers drummer Will Rigby:
"Saturday [January 13] brings the first appearance by Sneakers since 1976. The dB's play Bowery Ballroom in NYC with Mitch Easter opening, and orig Sneakers bassist Robert Keely is coming up and we're going to try to get through a handful of tunes..."As Will notes, this will be the first public appearance by the original band since the mid-seventies (Stamey & Easter made an appearance at a Winston-Salem record store in the early 90's to promote an earlier reissue of Sneakers material entitled Racket, but the rest of the group wasn't involved). Sounds like it could be fun or a mess or both . . .