The reunited dB’s come storming out on Falling Off the Sky, quickly dispensing with the expected sheen of comfy nostalgia from the opening track. Check out Peter Holsapple, filled with the pissed-off brio of classic Neil Young, squalling: “You better wake up, wake up, wake up!: That time is gone.”
Chris Stamey follows with “Before We Were Born,” a resonant sunburst of jangle-pop, and in two songs the dB’s — together in the studio for the first time since 1982’s Repercussion with all four original members, Gene Holder, Holsapple, Will Rigby and Stamey — have reclaimed everything that made them such a memorable snark-pop presence in 1980s-era rock, even as they deftly update their sound. There’s a deeper complexity to the music, and — in a few notable instances — an even harder edge to the songwriting.
Stamey’s “The Adventures of Albatross and Doggerel” has a clinched, churning menace. Holsapple’s “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Anymore” — a harrowing depiction of his family’s journey out of New Orleans after Katrina — doesn’t boast the same fiery attitude, but it’s every bit as devastatingly direct. That’s balanced by Stamey’s heart-rending “Far Away and Long Ago,” with a delicately wrought assist from a North Carolina symphony orchestra; and his layered, George Harrison-ish title track. Holsapple answers with “I Didn’t Mean to Say That,” one of the prettiest oh-shit-I’m-sorry songs ever.
It’s not just that they’re back. It’s that they may be better than ever.
Neither seemed like much of a given for the dB’s, a group of childhood friends who emerged from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, even as fellow Southern-made alternative bands like R.E.M. and the B-52’s were bursting onto the nation stage. That kind of fame wasn’t to be for the dB’s, however, as the band issued a pair of deeply underrated albums (1981’s Stands for Decibels and then Repercussion) on a British label with spotty distribution in the U.S. Stamey left not long after, and the group continued on through 1984’s Like This and 1987’s The Sound of Music in 1987, with varying lineups, before calling it quits.
Holsapple ended up working as a sideman with Hootie and the Blowfish and R.E.M., and co-founded the legendary Crescent City roots supergroup the Continental Drifters. Rigby became Steve Earle’s drummer. Holder has worked as a producer for Yo La Tengo, Luna and Cowboy Mouth. Stamey eventually opened a Chapel Hill studio, and has worked as producer for Alejandro Escovedo, among others. But save for a well-received duo recording with Holsapple in 1991, the dB’s looked dead and gone — until a few years ago, when the group slowly began reassembling. In fits and spurts, over sessions that also included a 2009 Holsapple-Stamey follow up release, Falling Off the Sky began to take shape.
This measured approach, coupled with years of seasoning, has clearly given the band a sense of purpose about its music making. To be sure, there is a powerful atmosphere of community to this record, something to be expected after so long away, but also a welcome desire for adventure. That sensibility might be best reflected not in the long-awaited recombining of Holsapple and Stamey songs but on the Buddy Holly-inflected “Write Back” — which is actually the first song to be written and sung by Rigby on a dB’s album.
Once more, they sound so very much like themselves — but, then again, so very different. That’s the best kind of reunion.