Saturday, April 21, 2012

Stands for Decibels (1981)

There never was much about the dB's in the way of commercial appeal, but somehow they bore the mantle of a good deal of cachet at one point—does anyone else remember "Hoboken pop" and its various figures, such as the Bongos or the Individuals?—enough so that this became, for a vanishingly short period, an album to be prized and envied, another shiny object spun out of New York New Wave. Indeed there is something surprisingly self-contained and almost calculated about the project, the formal manner in which the band appeared to have chosen to work with the three-minute pop song, which they pushed and pulled on in any number of interesting and suggestive directions. The collaboration was among a quartet of Winston-Salem natives/New York transplants. Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey ultimately owned most of the responsibilities for the songwriting, together and individually. I have to say it feels a bit of an odd matchup now, with Holsapple likely supplying most of the hooks and melodies and Stamey most of the kinds of things that made the music unusual and, sometimes, most interesting. Closer to Bowie and Eno than Lennon and McCartney, but maybe closest of all to figures lurking in Stamey's background, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, or Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, maybe even Lou Reed and John Cale—formal collaborations within which one can't help noticing a great divide and no little tension between the principals, even if it's unconscious. A lot of the essays at The Pop Song served up here in the dB's debut communicate a sense of having been approached so cerebrally as to carry with them a vaguely unpleasant whiff of suffocation even as the songs go merrily unspooling by. I think the hope was that the most interesting and promising aspects of it would develop. A year or two later a Beatles impersonator from Detroit, Marshall Crenshaw, would sail effortlessly beyond anything in the way of pop music we ever got from Holsapple and Stamey—it became clear they were trying too hard. There were still numerous reasons to be encouraged. They had an obvious, instinctive respect for the capabilities of a studio—the sound is bracingly clean, a glittering surface across which skid all manner of audio: adenoidal adolescent yelping, fine chording, keyboard accents, patches of atmospheric space defined within a space that generously encloses all of it with room to spare. It sounds full of promise. If there was no reason to expect them to be great, there was also no reason to think they wouldn't be.


  1. JPK - A very interesting essay about The dB's debut; much food for thought.

    I have recently posted "Stands for deciBels REVISITED" on my dB's blog, offering the album in alt. mixes & live versions. It's here along with lots of other dB's-related stuff:

    Cheers & thanks for the good words.

  2. Thanks, Robin, lots of interesting stuff over at your place!