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Traveling talesman
Chris Stamey leaves his mark on two new albums

In the lyric of "In Spanish Harlem" — one of many shimmering moments on Chris Stamey’s new Travels in the South (Yep-Roc) — an immigrant makes his way to that New York neighborhood, drawn by his love for the Phil Spector–produced, Ben E. King–sung single of the same name. As Stamey’s tune soars in a widescreen, Spectorian way, the hero contemplates the things he loves about that ’60s song: "Kenny Burrell doesn’t know how to play out of tune. . . . Hal Blaine hits the drums so hard, you forget just where you are." If any number of others songwriters had written this, the hero would probably get hit by some harsh reality before the last chorus. But Stamey leaves the story open-ended, with the singer reveling in his little pop epiphany.

Little moments like that are what Stamey’s first solo album in 10 years is all about. If he’s not quite a full-fledged cult hero, it’s because he doesn’t record all that often; neither does he have the obvious personality quirks of an Alex Chilton or a Ryan Adams (both of whom he’s worked with over the years). Yet he has at least three underground classics to his name: the dBs’ 1982 album Repercussion (IRS); his 1988 solo disc It’s Alright (A&M); and Mavericks, a reunion he recorded with dB’s bandmate Peter Holsapple for Rhino in 1991. The Stamey/Holsapple partnership worked so well for so many years because Holsapple’s emotionally direct songs counterweighted Stamey’s more abstract ones. But Stamey has been able to work both sides of the fence as a solo artist, doing between-the-eyes pop along with exploring a more oblique sort of tunefulness.

In recent years, his bread and butter has been production; his clients have included critical faves Whiskeytown, Alejandro Escovedo, and Le Tigre. And along with Travels in the South, he now has another project in stores that helps bring into focus the two sides of his pop personality: he produced and added instrumental backing to Sweetwater (Yep Roc), an album by Tres Chicas, an acoustic trio featuring ex-Whiskeytown member Caitlin Cary alongside singers/guitarists Tonya Lamm and Lynn Blakey. He keeps the arrangements drumless and the production to a minimum, letting natural vocal harmonies shine through. The closest thing to a production frill is his lead guitar on a cover of Loretta Lynn’s "Deep As Your Pocket." But even that adds less rock to her style than White Stripe Jack White did as the producer of her recent Van Lear Rose (Universal). "As far as I’m concerned, Tres Chicas is Crosby, Stills & Nash," Stamey explains over the phone from his North Carolina home. "Just the three of them working up songs, very casual. To claim a Caitlin phrase, it’s a record that happened by accident."

Travels in the South, on the other hand, is a carefully crafted showcase for Stamey’s considerable skills as a producer/arranger. He calls on a handful of friends — Holsapple, Adams, Cary, and ’80s pop figure Don Dixon are four who add background vocals — and enhances each song with textured arrangements. The opening "14 Shades of Green," about revisiting one’s childhood haunts, sports nostalgic Beach Boys vocal harmonies and pristinely jangling guitars. But the inviting sound of that track and the rest of Travels belies the disc’s darker purposes. The second song, "Kierkegaard," ponders the existence of God, and even the most upbeat track, "Ride," ventures only as much elation as a deep-thinking songwriter can risk ("Everything is open wide/All you’ve got to do is ride"). Everything about the track, from the chiming chorus hook to the dabs of steel guitar and acoustic piano, helps put that feeling of wanting to escape across. In fact, in many ways Travels in the South feels like the inverse of Big Star’s cult classic Third/Sister Lovers (Rykodisc). Both discs address existential crises in their lyrics, but whereas Big Star’s album is stark and despairing, Stamey’s is lush and life-affirming.

"If you’re looking for a detailed philosophical discussion of any issue, you probably shouldn’t be looking on a pop record," he cautions. Still, he admits to aiming high when he wrote this batch of songs. "I certainly used up my quota of whiny, sad love songs in the past. There was something I was trying to do here, and I know it’s an uncomfortable phrase, but it’s the one I was using: I wanted something that wouldn’t necessarily be psychedelic but psycho-active. One that would touch off a certain reaction in the mind."

As for "In Spanish Harlem," Stamey admits he got some of the history wrong: guitarist Kenny Burrell didn’t actually play on any Phil Spector productions. "I was looking for the feeling you get when you go off on an adventure and it doesn’t turn out just like you expected. But the guy in the song gets a few things wrong: he associates Phil Spector with New York when he wasn’t really there for long." Nonetheless, the tune’s narrator is clearly part of Stamey’s target audience: someone who knows how much the little details on a great pop song can mean.

Issue Date: July 23 - 29, 2004
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