Counterbalance: The dB’s’ ‘Stands for Decibels’

They say the 235th most acclaimed album of all time gets off on frustration, but I know you've got an explanation. The 1981 debut from a power-pop legend is this week's Counterbalance. Bad reputation? Not hardly.
The dB's
Stands for Decibels

Klinger: A few weeks ago, when we were talking about the Violent Femmes, I mentioned my admiration for the dB’s, a group that is, both figuratively and literally, the missing link between the proto-power pop of Big Star and the college rock of R.E.M. I did a little checking over at the Acclaimed Music site, the wellspring of the Great List and our statistical overlord these past four years, and lo and behold their first album, 1981’s Stands for Decibels, is still hanging in there at No. 2355. In the next few years, I suspect it will drop off, as newer, shinier objects capture the critical imagination and these relatively obscure pioneers drop even further off the cultural radar, so I’d like to take a moment to sing the praises of an eminently worthy album (and band) while I have the chance.

Led by songwriters Chris Stamey (who played with Big Star’s Alex Chilton for a while) and Peter Holsapple (who went on to serve as a touring utility man for R.E.M.), the dB’s zigzag their way through an array of pop styles, from the careening “Black and White” to the herky-jerky “Cycles Per Second” and into the dreamy psych of “She’s Not Worried”. The pair’s dynamic was relatively clear-cut — Holsapple wrote the more straight-ahead numbers while Stamey headed for the hinterlands, but there was always a balancing act between them, so the pop maintained an edge and the left turns never lost sight of the hook. It’s an impressive record, and I’m awfully glad I somehow happened upon it (used! on cassette!) back in college. Hearing Stands for Decibels was a revelation for me — it demonstrated, even more clearly than punk, that rock ‘n’ roll could be open to anyone, even a nerdier kid with a nasally voice. Plus, it came along at a time when Winston-Salem, North Carolina seemed like an unusually hot hotbed for musicians, being home to Let’s Active (one of my first concerts: St. Andrew’s Hall, Detroit, 1984), whose leader Mitch Easter ran the legendary Drive-In Studios where R.E.M.’s Murmur was recorded. That’s a long way of saying that this record means a lot to me. Your thoughts?

Mendelsohn: I am happy that this record has now found its way into my record collection (thank you for not giving it to me on cassette tape, my Walkman wandered off). Stands for Decibels is one of those lost gems that, more than likely, I would have never found simply because I would not be inclined to follow the musical thread through R.E.M. to Big Star and then onto the dB’s. It is nice to see the tapestry of interconnecting music open up before one’s eyes. I like that the dB’s carved out a nice little niche in the genre of power pop while straddling the line between punk and New Wave. But as I’ve listened to this record over and over again for the past week, I got the distinct feeling that there was just something a little off about the record. Don’t get me wrong, I like the propulsive nature and once I got beyond the slightly whiney vocals, I found myself enjoying the record even more.

It wasn’t until you mention the tag team writing of Holsapple and Stamey that it finally dawned on me — I only really like Holsapple’s songs. He has a knack for condensing the Beatles’ best pop bits into driving blasts of rock ‘n’ roll. Stamey, on the other hand, seems to enjoy sonic experimentation. I can’t speak to the writing process of this record but it seems to me that they could have benefitted from passing the song sheet back and forth. To use the obvious reference, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were two very different songwriters but were able to make strong contributions to the other’s work for more balance and cohesion.

Klinger: I see where you’re coming from, and I think I may have felt the same way about Stamey’s tracks during my first few listens. Holsapple’s tracks are so immediate — the shimmering “Big Brown Eyes” jumps to mind immediately — but it’s Stamey’s off-kilter approach for which the rock-snob phrase “rewards further listenings” was invented. It’s not entirely dissimilar to the ideas we kicked around when we were discussing Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers(which “Moving in Your Sleep” could be an outtake from). A certain type of listener can listen to something like this and hear the beating heart of a pop song underneath, while others (possibly most) won’t get past the unusual vocals and jarring arrangements.

Perhaps there was more tension there than met the eye when this album sprung on the scene in the early ’80s. Stamey only stuck around for one more album, then Holsapple led the band through a couple more. They’ve since pulled back together for a few projects here and there, but the fact that they drift back and forth might be telling indeed. Regardless, that willingness to play with the pop form is every bit as necessary to the group’s sound as the ability to work within it. And you can’t tell me that “Cycles Per Second” isn’t catchy as anything, regardless of how nutty it might sound right at first.

Mendelsohn: If anything, our trip through the Great List has taught me that there are innumerable different ways for pop music to manifest itself, with varying degrees of success, but all with their own unique qualities. The dB’s’ approach, while not completely out of left field (and owing a substantial debt to the Fab Four) was able to capture the zeitgeist of power pop at a critical time and provide the foundation that others would use to build the college rock sound of the middle and late ’80s — most notably R.E.M. and Yo La Tengo. The recipe for success is written throughout the tracks of Stands for Decibels: bring the pop, cover with copious amounts of jangly guitar, drop in some weird but never shy away from the ballad.

Klinger: And pop classicism is exactly the sort of thing that seems to be falling out of favor these days. If, as we said last week, hip-hop is going to be what drives the canon going forward, and if whatever we’re calling “alternative” has stagnated into a general grunge-based stasis, then it’s not altogether surprising that the dB’s and their ilk are going to fall away.

Mendelsohn: So while the dB’s never gained the critical mass to provide them with commercial success, they stand out as an important piece in the interlocking puzzle of the rock canon. Knowing this, I’m a little saddened by your assessment that this album will one day drop from the Great List. It’s a fair assessment, despite our misgivings, and the album won’t rock any less if it’s ranked at No. 3001, but it seems to be the inevitable conclusion as the sands of time start to bury the lesser-known acts.

But then, that is the nature of the Canon and we are blessed, I suppose, to be seeing it unfold before us. Do the dB’s deserve to be swept under unrelenting march of passing time and newer music?

Klinger: I’d love to think that there would be some newfound groundswell of enthusiasm for hook-based power pop as younger generations start looking beyond their immediate surroundings, but I’ve made my peace with the idea that that’s not too likely. Twenty-five years ago I was hoping that this was going to be what was next for mainstream acceptance, and that didn’t wind up happening either. Still, the Internet, through its insatiable appetite for content, has provided us with an incredible opportunity to once in a while stand up and fly the flag for an unheralded gem like Stands for Decibels. And the newfound online access means that it’s easier than ever for someone to give it a listen for themselves. Here’s hoping a few people out there in Internetland will do so.