[27 February 2013]
Chris Stamey’s Lovesick Blues is a grower. During the initial spins, I lost patience with the album’s sluggish pace and Stamey’s monochromatic singing. But then I gave it the headphone treatment, and a dazzling new world opened up. The subtle and often gorgeous instrumentation — strings and keyboards provide shimmery accents to Stamey’s chiming guitar work —revealed itself with an understated flourish. This is a lush album that delivers some breathtaking moments, provided you take the time to look for them.
Lovesick Blues is the second half of a formidable one-two punch from Stamey, an acclaimed musician, mixer and producer. Last summer, he and his beloved power-pop band, the dB’s, released their long-awaited reunion album Falling Off the Sky to near-unanimous praise. That record showed that Stamey and Co.’s skills at creating angular, offbeat pop has not dulled a bit since Repercussion, the dB’s classic that came out more than 30 years ago. (Yes, that’s 30, as in 3-0: Cue an entire generation’s “Man, now I feel old” complaint.)
This new solo album, though, is a different animal — dB’s fans hoping for Falling Off the Sky, Redux should look elsewhere. Stamey is in a particularly introspective mood here, meditating on love, loss and the other Big Things that tend to occupy the minds of those of us who’ve hit middle age. On his website, Stamey describes the album thusly: “This record is the closest I’ve ever gotten to the sound I hear in my head in the middle of the night”.
No surprise, then, that at first listen, the songs felt dreamy, languorous and frustratingly hard to grasp. My hopes for the album dimmed after listening to the very first track, “Skin”. It opened with bell-like guitar and rumbling drums, a promising intro that seemed to lay the groundwork for a Beatles-esque pop jaunt. But then Stamey’s stop-and-start vocals arrived and slowed down the whole works. By the time the song ended, it had repeatedly suggested a melody without ever actually delivering one.
Other hushed, meandering tracks (“London”, “Anyway”, “Wintertime”) followed, along with the occasional slice of jangle pop (“You N Me N XTC”). I was within a guitar string’s breadth of writing the album off as a disappointing miss. And right about then is when I decided to give it the aforementioned Final Chance listen on headphones.
At the risk of getting ridiculous about it, that listen changed everything. It was like Dorothy stepping from her black-and-white farmhouse into the Technicolor land of Oz. I heard, for the first time, the gentle wash of cello on “Skin”. I heard the orchestral accents that flutter throughout “Astronomy”, including the jittery strings in the chorus, and the woodwinds that pop in and out of “The Room Above the Bookstore”. The album finally took flight, and I felt like I, too, could hear the sounds that run through Stamey’s head in the middle of the night.
It doesn’t all work. “Occasional Shivers” is a plodding misfire. The title track, which closes the album, takes much too long to get to its arresting finale, which includes an unexpected guitar solo. And while Stamey has a pleasant voice, his range is too limited to match the multicolored musical palette he offers here; his vocal performances start to sound the same from track to track.
Those flaws aside, Lovesick Blues is a beautifully crafted and affecting album. To those initially put off by its pensive moods, please please please take my advice: Stick with it. Lovesick Blues requires a fair amount of digging from the listener, but those who put in the time will find much to treasure.