The dB’s – Stands for Decibels / Repercussion

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This was another band that I worked backwards towards. Not surprising, as their first two albums were not released in the US and those came out in 1981-82, when I had but nine years of age. But enough references read in magazines led me to find this compilation. The four dB’s were all from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and had known each other as children (as well as Mitch Easter); Chris Stamey, drummer Will Rigby and Easter were in the short-lived Sneakers together (whose work was produced by Don Dixon). Nonetheless, the dB’s officially formed in New York. Stamey had moved there to play bass for Alex Chilton, and started recording and releasing his own music (including a song recorded with Richard Lloyd) on his own record label – Car Records – which furthered  the Big Star connection by releasing Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos / You and Your Sister” single in 1978. Rhythm section Rigby and Gene Holder backed him, and eventually Peter Holsapple appeared in Manhattan and joined the band as well. They signed to small British label Albion, which was not able to secure distribution for their work in the US; thus Stands for Decibels and Repercussion were imports only. Stamey left after that and the band released two more albums before breaking up. Stamey released his own music and also became a producer (Pylon, Whiskeytown, Le Tigre, the Mayflies). Holsapple became a sideman for the likes of REM. Rigby drummed for Steve Earle and Matthew Sweet. Rigby was also the spouse of Amy Rigby, whose Diary of a Mod Housewife is a pretty good album; she is now married to Wreckless Eric, and I saw (via a livestream) both of them play with Yo La Tengo in 2020. Holder has done production and engineering work for Luna, Yo La Tengo, and Marshall Crenshaw. I don’t agree with the apostrophe in the band’s name.

What I Think of This Album

Stands for Decibels

“Quirky” is the wrong word. It is suggestive of artifice and preciousness. The plainer “strange” or the kinder “off-kilter” are better. You can call the dB’s power-pop but this is the oddest power-pop I have ever heard. Even considering that Peter Holsapple generally provides the more straightforward songs, those are still full of unusual lyrical matter and unexpected musical choices.

There are eleven songs on the album; the band gets a full credit for one of those, and Holsapple and Stamey each provided five of their own. As sometimes happens with these things, they also take lead vocals on their own songs.

Holsapple kicks things off with the jangle that would reverberate across the world (or at least, Athens, Georgia) on “Black and White.” It’s not difficult to hear REM in this 1981 tune, though Holsapple’s shout of “You don’t like it at all!” is a little disconcerting. He continues with the theme of domestic strife on the Greek drama of “The Fight,” which again finds him shouting the chorus (“It was a fight! / We were involved in a fight”) with some unnerving string bends in the background. This song is hardly what I would call conventional, with a stuttering rhythm and an unusual delivery from Holsapple.

“Bad Reputation” is about a girl tainted by hypocritical rumors, with Holsapple adopting a sinister talk-croon; the latter half of the song incorporates a bass solo and a discordant piano part, just because. The closest to a traditional song arrives with “Big Brown Eyes,” which is Beatles-esque to the extreme, though the guitar solo is pure ‘70s power-pop. The acoustic-tinged “Moving In Your Sleep” is a stark, mumbly ballad, with unexpected surges and artsy arrangement that somehow veers into doo-wop.

Stamey’s first contribution is the psychedelic pop of “She’s Not Worried,” with some cool backwards guitar, organ, and clever production touches; this sounds like something Brian Wilson would approve of. “Espionage” is not showing up on the soundtrack to a James Bond movie any time soon; full of jarring piano and keyboard, with a creeping, jittery sound that is the furthest thing from suave and smooth, and it all devolves into a nightmarish short bridge before the psychotic piano reestablishes itself.

Fuzzy analog synths introduce “Tearjerkin’,” though Holder’s bass takes over quickly and Rigby’s nimble drumming is key to this unpredictable song. That said, what appears to be a chorus is pretty damn tuneful. Even stranger is “Cycles Per Second,” with stray piano notes, bizarre keyboard sounds, and other inexplicable sound effects, again all held together by Holder’s jazz-funk bass and Rigby’s expert drumming. “I’m In Love” isn’t too far out in left field by comparison – this is basically a Robyn Hitchcock song before there was such a thing, with Stamey doing his nervous, confused best and offering a great vocal.

The collaboration “Dynamite” is pretty good, with a bright organ part, pleasantly stretched out and whiny vocals, and more excellent work by Rigby and Holder. Tacked on as an extra track is the fine single “Judy,” which is a very straightforward song from Holsapple, with some slippery bass work from Holder and nice harmonies.

Overall, I don’t think any of this would’ve been a hit even if the band had obtained American distribution. It would have influenced – as it did, anyway – the college-rock kids and appealed to the artsy crowd, but there is no way this was sneaking into most ears even if broadly marketed as “new wave.”

The original cover art is very early ‘80’s (reminds me a little of the Marshall Crenshaw debut), but I like it.

Repercussion

Not exactly more of the same, but not not exactly more of the same. Six songs from Stamey, and six from Holsapple. Stamey is the more adventurous songwriter, but it’s not as if Holsapple is churning out Top 40 pap. Producer Scott Litt (REM) smooths things out a little but this is still a band that is as unpredictable as it is talented.

The Rumour Brass (Graham Parker) add a professional touch to “Living a Lie,” which accordingly sounds much fuller and glossier than anything that had come before, approaching a mod-like reverence for R&B. Much more typical of the debut’s sound is the spare, spiky “We Were Happy There,” with prominent roles played by Holder’s thick bass and Rigby’s drumming.

Perhaps proving that he could get weird too – not that that was a concern anyone had – Holsapple provides the innocuously titled “Amplifier.” This song about a musician’s suicide, prompted by his partner’s theft (or destruction) of all his worldly possessions save for the titular item. Frankly, I would have a hard time arguing this isn’t a novelty song. The short bridge is really the best part; I find Holder’s bass oppressive and the piano and guitar racket at the end annoys me.

Much more enjoyable is the Latin-inflected “Storm Warning,” which nonetheless offers some biting lyrics (“You’ve been a loser all your life”) and an ocarina (?) solo. The rare ballad appears in the form of “Nothing Is Wrong,” which is fine as those things go. Perhaps Holsapple’s strongest offering – and one of the best dB’s’ songs overall – is “Neverland,” which is ultra-melodic jangle with great dynamics and fun backing vocals.

Stamey’s bitter, sneering “Happenstance” (“So run back to your mother / She always said you would”) is magnificently dark. His balladic contribution is the swirling, fragile “From a Window to a Screen.” Meanwhile, his near-joke song is “Ask for Jill” which documents trying to ask out the receptionist at the mastering company; the song is all elbows and knees, with some unusual drumming from Rigby and a pretty good vocal from Stamey.

The gently psychedelic “I Feel Good” (backwards guitar!) is an interesting exercise, even if you can’t hum it. Much more lively is “Ups and Downs,” with the band’s trademark drawn-out whiny vocals present, and a nice piano part. A needly guitar introduces the busy, claustrophobic “In Spain,” which Talking Heads would’ve shoplifted in the pockets of an extra-large suit if they could have; Holder outdoes himself on this recording, and the guitar solo is nerdily awesome. Stamey gets the bonus track this time with the shuddering, angular, brittle “Soul Kiss;” again, not even close to a traditional pop song.

I like this original cover art.

The Best Thing About This Album

Stamey wins with “I’m In Love” and “Happenstance” (though “Neverland” is a great song).

Release Date

January, 1981 (Stands for Decibels); 1982 (Repercussion); 2001 (reissue)

The Cover Art

Obviously, terrible in every way (impressively, the record company unearthed a photo where everyone but Stamey looks like a lunatic), but also not surprising.

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