The blast of reverb laden feedback that starts off Chris Stamey’s A Question of Temperature is, as much as anything on the album, an announcement that he’s back in the saddle. After a 10-year recording hiatus during which he produced such notable bands as Whiskeytown and Le Tigre, Stamey has suddenly turned prolific. A Question of Temperature follows 2004’s Travels in the South, leaving less than a year between the two albums. Recording with indie rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo as his backing band, Stamey has produced a set of covers and originals that wouldn’t sound out of place on any of his mid-‘80s solo albums or work as a member of the dB’s.
The question that arises when a veteran of the indie rock heyday reappears to produce work that very much echoes the best of his past is, is anybody out there listening? The use of Yo La Tengo as backing band and guest appearances from Caitlin Cary will probably attract at least a smattering of interest from the indie rock scene, while including bluegrass artists Chatham County Line should catch the attention of the alt-country crowd. But in a musical landscape that’s dominated by younger and more experimental artists it is both refreshing and frustrating to hear Stamey put out an album that easily stands up to his best work. It’s refreshing to hear a long time indie rock veteran still able to write songs that lose none of their luster when put against the current crop of critical darlings (Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst, John Darnielle, for instance). Meanwhile, it’s frustrating that the music he’s making, not matter the quality, won’t carry the relevance that it did 15 years ago. While a critic commenting that Stamey has come far from his days as Alex Chilton’s bass player to become an “elder statesmen” of melodic Southern pop music is on the surface complimentary, it does highlight Stamey’s larger problem of the relative indifference from those too young to appreciate both his legacy and his continued excellence. It’s too bad because there’s much for a new generation to learn from Stamey’s ability to interpret other’s songs and craft new originals.
A Question of Temperature was written and performed with Yo La Tengo over a long weekend. It wasn’t labored over for months. Because of this the songs and the performances feel very immediate, very alive. “Shapes of Things”, the second song on the album, updates the Yardbirds’ original with Stamey and company staying close to the bluesy guitar work of the original. “Venus”, a Television cover, becomes a melodic stroll that brings out the hidden melody of the original, turning it into a breezy summer stroll through a field of wild flowers as opposed to the broken urban angst of the original. “Politician” is a 12-bar blues vamp most notable for the piano work of Tyson Rogers. Rogers’ keyboard work throughout the album works well as a counterpoint to Ira Kaplan’s feedback heavy guitar playing.
A Question of Temperature is most successful when Stamey and friends slow things down just a bit, allowing Stamey’s songwriting to be the star of the show. “The Summer Sun” is an excellent example of the jangle pop that Stamey made a name for himself penning for the dB’s. It’s songs like “The Summer Sun” and “Sleepless Nights” that serve as excellent reminders of why Stamey continues to deserve an audience for his music. These aren’t throwaway songs that feel only half inspired (like much of Paul Westerberg’s solo work) but fully realized, emotionally cognizant pieces.
The album’s centerpiece is the 10-minute and 40-second “McCauley Street (Let’s Go Downtown)”. Don’t let that number fool you. Stamey is one of those rare songwriters (and in this case paired with a band of rare ability) who can actually consider recording a song of such length without seeming indulgent, self-centered, or starved for attention. The song starts slowly but gains momentum as it starts to wind itself out, Stamey and Kaplan’s guitars battling towards a crescendo that ends in a draw as the song pulls to a close. It’s inspired songwriting and shows Stamey to be as engaged with his craft as he was 25 years ago.