Written by: Dave Cantrell
Once every couple of weeks [the actual physical manifestation of] an album arrives at my SEM home office unbidden. Most come accompanied by a one-sheet prepared either by the artist themself or, more often, their publicist. Few are those that come with naught but the CD alone and precious fewer of those that, in a rather humble if austere silence, arrive hand-sent out of the blessed nowhere. Sometimes, seeing as such a presentation brings with it an implied note of ‘needs no introduction,’ the result is a bit comical as I turn the CD front-to-back and back again in my hand in a way that echoes one of those instances when someone comes up to you in the street or at the store and starts talking to you with a familiar tone while in your head you’re asking ‘Do I know this person?’ But then there’s that ever-so-rare occasion when you pull the parcel from the box and you see the sender’s name in the top left corner and you stand there for a few stunned seconds down by the street at the edge of your property with the shiver of an unspoken ‘wow’ filling your mind like a kind of helium, the wonder of how or from whom they got your address (of for that matter even know who the hell you are) overlaid with a happy gratitude that they did (and, apparently do, difficult to fathom as that may be). Such was the scenario some weeks ago when Chris Stamey’s latest …The Great Escape got set on my desk behind the laptop with the pledge that as soon as I got enough life out of the way – which meant, among much else, finishing the 3 Clubmen piece I’d just started – I’d sit where I’m now sitting and dig in. If you’re at all wondering why all the fuss over this Stamey fellow, a bit of history, both basic and personal, is perhaps not unwarranted.
There’s little doubt that the fevered ‘then’ of one’s young twenties tends to shape the ‘what’ of what we become as if in a kiln fire (insert unshaped teenage clay metaphor here) and it was no different for the reviewer wielding the pen. Enrolled at Berkeley for what in retrospect seems to have been the sole purpose of attending unstructured but none-more-vital classes at the many record stores surrounding the campus – especially Rather Ripped Records located like a secret den of agents provocateurs on the quieter, leafier northside – I would soon, in a flurry of impetuous life decisions, ditch academia, bag an entry level job at the one-stop music warehouse in Oakland where a couple of my erstwhile ‘professor’ pals from Rather Ripped had decamped, actually move to Berkeley – I’d been commuting in from the suburbs – and then begin digging into my true studies with a fervor never felt in the classroom as I pursued a degree of a decidedly different, more passionate nature.
The dropout was 1977 but the move was ’78, AKA, if informally (thought I submit it now as official), “The Year Post-Punk Broke™” and all that unbridled energy that punk had prised loose metastasized almost overnight into an unprecedented efflorescence unrivaled then and unmatched since and finding myself where I found myself, within that same galaxy of record stores alongside newsstands that stocked the British weeklies and BOMP! and whatever else, was akin to a kid made of touch paper living amidst a warren of match sellers. For myself and countless others it felt we were constantly alight, spending all we could afford and often more at Tower (surprisingly great import 45s section), Rasputin’s, and of course Rather Ripped where one day a curious single showed up behind the counter – an era-typical DIY sleeve, fetchingly yellow with a pic of three scruff-haired guys my age calling themselves Chris Stamey & The dB’s (soon to become just ‘The dB’s) – that came with raves from Ray (“That guy from the Sneakers EP” was all he needed to say, we’d all bought it) and an approving nod from Russ and even as penury, in this case, truly precluded any purchase that day I had them spin it and as it spun so did my head and in lieu of a 7″ I at least carried that sound, that new immutable jangle, back to my place on Haste, excited and not a little amazed how a band that drew from sources that weren’t exactly all that new could create a noise so resoundingly fresh, so immediate.
Further listenings to future releases over the next few years would end up substantiating that day’s eager wonder, reiterating the reaction we had upon hearing that first dB’s LP on our stereos, one that amounted to a purely American brand of marvel. It was as if the coolest corner of early 70s Memphis had migrated north to NYC (maybe stopping at Maxwell’s along the way), bringing Big Star’s soulful wide-eyed big bang rocknroll sound and splashing its Ardent magic all over the Big Apple. Needless to say, from that early Berkeley moment forward I was basically a fan for life and would follow, as is the music geek’s wont, the work of the band’s initial principals Peter Holsapple and Mr. Stamey wherever it led and, for our purposes here while fully admitting significant elision (that’s what the internet‘s for), where it led is to …The Great Escape making its way from mailbox to desk to the kitchen table where I sit with my scribblings and wrestle the joy and wonder I so often feel on to the page and out into the world and I gotta tell ya, today, that task, its prospect, borders on the euphoric.
Like a retrospective mission statement written in powered up minor chords stored up in his heart for decades and graced with timeless melodies, …The Great Escape, overall, presents as if reflected in amber but is in fact infused throughout by a blinding bright light like chrome catching glints from the sun. It’s an impression that’s not lost on the music-writing commentariat who have almost unanimously attributed a 1970s West Coast vibe to the album and I’ve no plan to buck that trend as indeed there’s something of a SoCal aura soaking into the proceedings here, but insofar as that’s the case a couple of potentially salient points come to mind. One is the fact that the style of sound Stamey has pursued from the dB’s forward has, like the influences drawn on from the beginning, always tilted toward the chimier end of the spectrum that by its nature is imbued with a fair amount of effervescence and, two, though of perhaps lesser import, the album was recorded with Terry Manning in Chapel Hill NC which is to say not far from Winstom-Salem where the dB’s formed and both have been home to scenes over the years that’ve not shied away from pop melodicism, so, apple, tree, etc. But whatever the case, yes, the album in front of us today rather, um, sings from the place where wide-open possibility intersects with the eternal matters of the human heart but in most respects that’s where Stamey’s drive has always taken him. It just so happens that this time, as outright exemplified by the cherry ’67 GTO that dominates the album’s cover, the ride we’re going on is a damned near literal one.
From the paean to American restlessness that’s our initial point of departure – and the title track – that pretty much embodies the ‘jaunt’ in jauntiness, running on full through the rhythms of the road as they slow and quicken, to the unhurried, not-a-little-mournful waltz finale of “[A Prisoner of This] Hopeless Love,” strummed and sung as if by a troubadour broken down at sunset at a rest stop along old Highway 1 (there are two fine bonus tracks past this point which we’ll leave to your discovery), this record crosses this way and that across the many borders of the well-jangled landscape he’s had such a major hand in carving. It’s not outlandish to consider this record a kind of travelogue of Stamey’s musical-personal psyche as he revisits anew the territories that brought him here, pushing pushpins into a map it’s taken a half-century to draw. Herewith, then, a handful of those coordinates.
A concise and jukebox-ready love song, “Realize,” with all its chime and charm (not to mention its perfect two-minute fifty second length), could be accused of being too template-based until you, um, realize that this is the guy that helped design that template which is precisely why the song’ll worm its way so deeply into your ear. Thus primed, we come to the Chilton-penned “She Might Look My Way” which, urged forward by a steady, yes, Chiltonesque surge, should indeed, by our lights, be a #1 record all across this quote-unquote star-spangled land. That that is followed by the plaintive but buoyant, Southwestern-tinged “Here’s How We Start Again,” the simple eternal pathos of a violin providing it with a touch of a ranchera feel should, beyond its more obvious merits, underline the breadth of Stamey’s pop topography and here we must pause for a moment in our travels to make note of just how effortless these segues from what’s essentially one state to another actually are. If the whole of this album’s tracks were laid out in front of you as some sort of visual schematic we’re quite certain that you’d not be able to see the joins even as you know they’re there. Sure, every song is of a piece but the tracklist, its sequencing, is contiguous in such a way that the album entire feels of a piece with each individual cut if that makes sense but even if it doesn’t right now it will when you hear it. That established, back on the road.
The poignant, acoustically lush “Greensboro Days,” with some subtle irony, proves itself a worthy cousin to the utter poptimism of “California Dreamin'” – its harmonies obliging the comparison – and is, in its way, nothing short of a corker. Then we’re “Back in New York,” pulling on a number of that city’s multiple immortal influences from Lieber-Stoller to Gerde’s-era Dylan Van Ronk before we pull up to a centerpiece that’s not at the center called “The Sweetheart of the Video,” a Minneapolis-based narrative showcasing the persuasive naturalism of Stamey’s lyrical gifts, an unbeatable blend of the grounded with the somewhat fever-dreamed, that easy command of language landing him on the corner of Carver and Kerouac as he stands at a bus stop on a snowy night staring in through the glaring windows of a Best Buy where a panoply of flat screens all tuned to YouTube flood the winter’s glow. In a moment’s flash the woman’s eyes on the video meet the eyes watching from outside and from that second spill the memories, a road trip, a romance, Texas to Cali in the dead of night, a destination reached yet never quite. While, as a stanza, not much can rival “I don’t know how she turned her back on life/on that final day//the darkness wrapped its arm around her tight/and carried her away,” the fact is every line here contends. Quietly but ever so surely a tour de force, the song, quite simply, defines elegiac.
In pretty much every respect, …The Great Escape asks – or, rather, demands – to be considered a jewel in this singer-songwriter’s long-worn crown, offering proof where none was needed that, at 68, just as he was at 28, 48, pick a year, Chris Stamey is and has always been, without doubt, one of this country’s most eminent songwriters, a songwriter emeritus who’s not actually retired and thank the pop heavens for that. May the odometer turn over, and over, and over, and over…