Chris Stamey: Travels in the South

Gary Glauber

Chris Stamey

Travels in the South

Label: Yep Roc
US Release Date: 2004-06-15
UK Release Date: 2004-06-14

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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