If you’ve been a fan of the seminal ‘80s jangle pop outfit the dB’s, you’ve been waiting a very long time for a new album. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting. In fact, Falling Off the Sky is the first new disc from the group in a quarter century, and the first long player to feature the original lineup since 1982’s excellent and ground-breaking Repercussion. That was 30 years ago, folks. What’s more, the band actually reunited in 2005 and started writing new material, but it has taken seven years for a new full-length record to finally see the light of day. (That said, some bits have dribbled out in the intervening years: the band issued a rare seven-inch single of new stuff, featuring the song “Write Back”, which appears on Falling Off the Sky, for Record Store Day 2011.) So the big question on all of your minds is has the wait been worth it? Well, the answer is a fairly resounding yes. Let’s not mince words here. Falling Off the Sky does not reach the same storied heights as either the 1981 debut Stands for deciBels or Repercussion, but it’s still a solid release and is probably a whole lot better than a reunion album from a band that hadn’t played together in some three decades or so has every right being.
For all intents and purposes, Falling Off the Sky generally hits the sweet spot, and actually picks right up from where this incarnation of the band last left off. If you listen to the final track of Repercussion, “Neverland”, and then listen to the first song off Falling Off the Sky, “That Time Is Gone”, it is as though only a few days had passed between the making of the two records. True, the spiky, punky, youthful energy (and caustic edge) of those records has been supplemented by a more gritty and somewhat countrified and relaxed straight-up rock sound, the very DNA of the dB’s sound still remains: the chime-y guitars, the skillful and powerful drumming and tempo changes, and the mostly impeccable songwriting of the group’s core axis of Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey. The tempos may have slowed somewhat, but this is still a great distillation of American power pop, and one that recalls the mid-period work of R.E.M. to a degree.
The R.E.M. comparison isn’t just lazy journalistic shorthand. This group has ties to the now defunct Athens, Georgia, band. For one, Repercussion was produced by Scott Litt, who went on to help helm R.E.M.’s stellar mid-career run of albums from Document to New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Mitch Easter, who co-produced early albums from R.E.M. such as Murmur and Reckoning, was the lead vocalist in a pre-incarnation of the dB’s in the late ‘70s. And while Falling Off the Sky is largely self-produced by the group, both Litt and Easter are credited with additional production duties. (Further on the R.E.M. front, Holsapple was a sideman with the group following the demise of the dB’s in the late ‘80s; he’s all over Out of Time as a backing musician.) Thus, Falling Off the Sky is, in some ways, a return to that retro-y jangly sound that R.E.M. helped popularize, but the dB’s helped to pioneer. The album also shows the band being perhaps more democratic than in their earlier incarnation: drummer Will Rigby contributes and sings the aforementioned “Write Back”, which is his first ever turn at songwriting on a dB’s album. Simply put, Falling Off the Sky is a showcase of generally top shelf material, and the sound of a group having a lot of fun making up for lost time.
There’s a great deal of pleasure to found here in that this is a band essentially rediscovering its voice. The soulful and brassy “The Wonder of Love”, with its horn section, recalls the orchestration of 1982’s “Living a Lie”. Meanwhile “Send Me Something Real” shows a flirtation with heartland country rock that the group began to explore in earnest by the time of 1984’s Like This rolled around. “The Adventures of Albatross and Doggerel” turns alt rock dynamics on its head, by having noisy, rocking verses and a soft, floating chorus, instead of the other way around. “Collide-oOo-Scope” particularly nudges into Peter Buck territory with its jangly guitars, and expands the waltz section of “Shiny Happy People” into something dream-like and colorful, much like the lens of a real kaleidoscope. In fact, a close listen to it reveals the kernel of an idea that the dB’s were inspired by the Beatles as much as they were R.E.M. While the dB’s were mining a style of American rock brought to life by the Byrds, if you listen to those early albums and their harmonies, you get the sense that they were, indeed, trying to be America’s answer to the Beatles. (Probably a reason why those early records were not originally issued on US soil – they were signed to a small British label – until some years after the fact.)
There are a few niggling little problems with Falling Off the Sky, though, things that prevent this album joining the ranks of the dB’s early material. “Before We Were Born” features a rather coy and Hallmark card-worthy line in the chorus – “I’ve got a feeling that I knew you before you were born” – that feels sentimentally borrowed and weak. “Write Back”, while being a great song and necessary of inclusion, does feel a bit shoehorned in as the fourth track. And “Far Away and Long Ago” is a syrupy love ballad with strings that are laid on a little too thick; most listeners will probably be hunting for their skip button when this comes on. However, these are but mostly miniature speed bumps on a journey of a band rediscovering their prowess. Falling Off the Sky might not be the dB’s at their peak, but it is a fun little album full of great hooks and minimal filler. For a large part, the band brings its A-game to the table, and you can tell a lot of workmanship and care went into its making. Falling Off the Sky showcases a band with a newfound sense of maturity and a mellowness, not necessarily in the songwriting department but in the sense that the songwriters are comfortable in their own shoes finally – or at least enjoy being in each others’ company. The dB’s is certainly a band that doesn’t have much to prove, particularly given the height they scaled on their early material. But here, they don’t coast on their laurels, either.
Falling Off the Sky is simply a great return to some level of form for one of America’s great little-heralded groups. (The dB’s make a case for being the ultimate ‘80s cult band considering their material tended to only capture a following well after the fact.) For a group that has largely fallen off the pop cultural map, Falling Off the Sky is the sound of a group righting themselves and making a compelling case for their enduring importance. And if you’re new to the dB’s, and pick up and enjoy this record, you’re in a particularly enviable position: you have the first two awesome albums in the backcatalogue to pick up as well, of which Falling Off the Sky feels as being the natural culmination of. For everyone else, the wait is finally over, and the dB’s do more than an admirable job of not embarrassing their legacy: they show that even 30 years on, they are still as relevant and as much of a joy to listen to as when they cut those first LPs. As a result, that’s good enough reason to welcome the dB’s back with fairly wide open arms.