Waiting over a decade between studio releases has its pros and cons, particularly if you're talented singer/songwriter/guitarist Chris Stamey. On the negative side, there are definitely less people in the listening audience who actively recall his formative stints in the Sneakers and the dBs, or, for that matter, even his solo efforts that followed (his last official solo studio release was 1991's Fireworks). Sure, he's a pivotal figure in the history of American alternative rock, but how many know his earlier music? I do, but I'm sure many of my younger counterparts do not.
On the positive side, Stamey has been busy producing and engineering projects for other artists in the intervening years, among them Whiskeytown, Alejandro Escovedo, Le Tigre, Ben Folds Five, Tift Merritt, the Butchies, Amy Ray, Helium, Flat Duo Jets, Caitlin Cary, Thad Cockrell, Yo La Tengo, Mayflies USA, and Squirrel Nut Zippers. With that impressive array of workmates (and it's not like Stamey didn't already have plenty of musical connections), it's easy to assemble a formidable bunch of musical allies for a new release. Without question, this is Stamey's best musical lineup to date.
While Stamey takes on lead guitar and keyboards, he is joined by Brian Dennis (rhythm guitar), Danny Kurtz (electric bass), Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, ex-Jayhawks keyboardist Jen Gunderman, and Greg Readling of the Carbines (on Hammond, pedal steel and accordion). Guest appearances read like a who's who of the music industry and include Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary, Thad Cockrell, Peter Holsapple, Wes Lachot, Tift Merritt, Brandon Bush, Ed Butler, Martha Bausch, Greg Decker, Don Dixon, Chris Eubank, Ben Folds, Jeff Hart, Darren Jessee, Brent Lambert, Logan Metheny, Sam Pould, Tyson Rogers, Corey Sims, Julia Stamey, and Chris Stephenson.
Stamey credits Ryan Adams with pushing him forward to do this new album. "I'd been on the other side of the glass a bit too long," Stamey admits, "and I was forgetting how hard it is to walk up to a mic and declare your intentions." Stamey wanted to create a musical meditation on the late-'60s generation he was a part of, and was eager to have fun exploring ideas while just jamming. The result is Travels in the South, twelve songs that aim to take on the big picture -- time, death, religion -- and move beyond the romantic relationship/dear diary aspects of most of his past musical creations. As he nears age 50, Stamey wanted to create something that will endure for generations.
While Travels in the South has wonderful moments where Stamey stretches farther musically, some of these songs require several listens to take hold. Stamey knows how to manipulate a hook -- he's a veteran of pop songcraft and his chord shifts are subtle. The sweet harmonies are everywhere and his sweet, reedy voice remains the same, an old familiar friend who once "asked for Jill" way back when.
"14 Shades of Green" is a strong opener, a catchy and lush wall-of-sound tune that ranks up there with the best Stamey's ever done. It's the story of a high school reunion's chartered bus, hijacked by the guy who never joined the others in leaving their hometown: "Here's where we went to class a hundred hours a day / And here's where we'd smoke grass and laugh our cares away / Here's where we went to church / Here's where we robbed that store / Here's where we fell in love / What are we waiting for?"
Stamey goes for the heavier subject topics in "Kierkegaard", and it's as though the dBs and Brian Wilson were taking on philosophical matters, e.g. the existence of God. It's a lovely melody, enhanced by some funk-groove organ, Beach Boys-like harmonies and some great jazzy solos on piano and guitar, stretching over five minutes yet never seeming very long.
"The Sound You Hear" is an astute examination of being at a certain point in life, far from your dreams and once-upon-a-time aspirations: "The sound you hear is the silence of the song you used to be". It opens with some great blues guitar riffs (courtesy of guest Ryan Adams) and works its way slowly to a rich harmonic chorus that reminds how "it's all over now".
When Stamey goes slow, he goes so slow as to seem hesitant, plodding. In "Insomnia", the stammering music effectively reflects the feel of the wee hours, unable to sleep, locked in a place haunted by memories. Stamey says this is about a night when a melancholy traveler glances out the window to find God has thrown a fistful of stars against the black heavens. It's lovely and moody, with accents of pedal steel, piano trills and electronic noises.
"Ride" is a more upbeat vision, extolling the psychedelic glee of traveling through both time and space. Stamey seems a little looser than in previous releases, more willing to jam his way out of a song. He serves up nice lead guitar solos here and lets the piano close out the song.
Opening with a guitar bit that recalls Paul Simon's "I Am a Rock", Stamey tells an amusing story in "Spanish Harlem". Here, travelers have come to New York City in a search for the imagined landscape they've conjured out of their Spector records. Kenny Burrell and Hal Blaine and the Shirelles get name-checked, and there are some beautiful harmonies from Tift Merritt.
"And I Love Her" is more of a straight-ahead Chris Stamey love ballad (like something from out of the past). Also like something from the 1960s is the upbeat "Alive" -- again featuring a very full wall-of-sound production and a great little guitar lead. Stamey allows some jamming at the song's end, but the true funky jam follows in the short next track, "K Jam", for a little over a minute.
The title track recommends one travel south when dreams fall out, while providing assurance of holding on to a real love ("I'm never gonna let you go"). This complex (and slower tempo) song has horns accompanying the middle bridge, and some nice pedal steel as well.
"There's a Love" is a pretty ode to simplicity and a strong yet indescribable love: "There's a love that never dies / A love you can't describe / There's a love that's everywhere / No poet's cage can trap or snare". Again, Stamey surrounds his song with an impressively busy musical arrangement, from flutes to keys to guitars and then some.
The album closes with the instrumental "Leap of Faith", which opens as an instrument-only treatment of "Kierkegaard" (flute replacing vocals), then after a minute and a half morphs from a dreamy meditation into ever-faster drums that further change into an interestingly moody modern jazz piece. It just hints at the many additional musical facets to Stamey, sides he doesn't often show.
While pleasant enough as an initial listen, the fun part about Stamey's music is how it grows better over time. After several listens, you'll likely hear more accent notes and notice different things about the songs. Obviously, he knows his way around strong songwriting -- one of the reasons his place in alternative rock history is deserved.
Travels in the South proves that Chris Stamey hasn't lost anything as a performer in the years spent working behind the board. Perhaps if these dozen songs are well received, he'll serve up several more in short order (much like his Peter Holsapple collaboration Mavericks followed close on the heels of Fireworks). If Stamey's new collection was written as a means of finding a way home after more than a decade away, it's a most welcome homecoming -- warm and happy and leaving you wanting more.