Posts Tagged With: dB’s

Under pressure: “Songs for 65 Roses” brings it all back home

The 20 years or so that “Losering” covers is just a small subset of a bigger story that goes even further back in time. That was one reason I started this damn country blog (groan), to fill in the picture a bit; only so much can fit into 200 pages, after all. My own history in the Triangle goes back to 1991, when I arrived to take the rock-writer job at the News & Observer. Alas, that was a few years too late for me to experience Chapel Hill’s Pressure Boys, who broke up in the late 1980s.

The Pressure Boys were kind of the ultimate party band in a town full of them, and former members went on to notable careers elsewhere — note the band’s prominent place in the upper left corner of this slice of the “N.C. music galaxy” I did in 1995. In the big picture, the Pressure Boys served as a transitional bridge between the ’80s wave of bands including Arrogance, dB’s and Let’s Active; and the alternative-rock generation that came of age in the ’90s, including Superchunk and Whiskeytown.

Songs65RosesAfter the Pressure Boys broke up, frontman John Plymale became a very fine producer, in which capacity he worked with a ton of acts from multiple generations of the Triangle music scene. Maybe the best illustration of his career is a record that ties it all together in a most wonderful way, Songs for 65 Roses: Re-Working the North Carolina Jukebox, a 2006 compilation to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (the album’s title came from how his young daughter Allie, who has cystic fibrosis, would pronounce the disease when she was very young).

The concept of 65 Roses is North Carolina acts covering North Carolina songs. Plenty of players from the “Losering” story turn up on both sides of that equation — Caitlin Cary, Superchunk, Chris Stamey and Squirrel Nut Zippers among them. Check this 2006 feature for further details on the web of connections that the album spins.

My favorite 65 Roses song is Let’s Active’s “Every Word Means No,” recast in a Tom Waits-ish arrangement by Eric Bachmann, leader of 1990s-vintage Chapel Hill indie-rock titans Archers of Loaf. Not far behind, however, is Ryan Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina” as performed by Portastatic, the solo incarnation of Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan. It starts out quiet and acoustic like Ryan’s 2000 original before revving up into an electrified version, a great tangent that turns a prayerful song into an exuberant one.

Check out this lovely little rumination about it, which has a Spotify link helpfully included.

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Chris Stamey ties it all together

StameyLSBChris Stamey has always been one of those six-degrees-of-separation types in North Carolina, where it seems like he’s produced, mixed, worked and/or played with just about everyone in the state over the past 30-plus years. He made his initial reputation in the early ’80s with the dB’s (a band that has always had Beatles-like stature in my personal college-radio cosmos) before going on to a long and well-respected career in some of the artier circles of New York new-wave art-pop.

Then he came back home to North Carolina in the early ’90s, setting up shop in Chapel Hill as a studio guru and working with notable area acts including Tift Merritt, Megafaun and, yes, Whiskeytown. Stamey produced numerous Whiskeytown recordings back in the day, including the “lost” album Forever Valentine. He also worked on the sonic overhaul of the 1998 reissue of Faithless Street and produced Caitlin Cary’s post-Whiskeytown solo albums.

Stamey has spent a lot more time producing other folks’ albums than putting out his own music for the last decade, although he did find time for the first original-lineup dB’s album in 30 years last year. But he just released his first solo album since 2005, the very fine Lovesick Blues. For more on that, go here for links to a new interview and a 2004-vintage feature about Stamey’s doings.

And just to tie all this together, this poster was done by Caitlin Cary’s husband.

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Back to the music

While I was writing “Losering,” I also put some effort into reconnecting with Ryan’s music. Of course, I’d been obsessively listening to all his records over the years. But the downside of how much I’d played them was that I was no longer hearing a lot of the details. I needed a fresh pair of ears, some outside perspective and a better sound system than the boombox and computers I use for most of my listening nowadays.

Enter Holden Richards, a longtime friend and fellow Ryan fan who also has a long history here in North Carolina — going back to his early-’80s days with the Chapel Hill indie-pop group One Plus Two. Holden first came to my attention in 1992 with a record called Bones of Contention, issued under the name the Swamis. It’s long out of print, but Bones of Contention still sounds terrific 20 years later if your tastes run toward the dB’s and Let’s Active (which mine definitely do). And while Holden still plays, recent years have found him putting a lot of energy into photography. Take a look at his portfolio and you should agree it’s been energy well-spent.

Holden and I conducted a couple of marathon sessions where we gave close listens to the key records in Ryan’s catalog, concentrating on the Whiskeytown period. Holden pointed out some technical things I doubt I would have picked up on, such as Ryan’s fondness for the metalhead’s favorite tuning, Drop-D (an effect that gave Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac all sorts of dark overtones).

He was also the perfect tour guide to the finer points of Chris Stamey’s sonic overhaul of the 1998 reissue of Whiskeytown’s debut full-length Faithless Street, which is immeasurably more nuanced and detailed than the original 1996 version. For example, “Drank Like a River” was a muddy roar in its original incarnation. But Stamey cleaned it up by panning the guitars — Ryan on one side, Phil Wandscher on the other — leaving more room in the middle for Ryan’s vocal and Caitlin Cary’s fiddle. Though subtle, that’s the kind of tweaking that makes a difference you can hear, and it made Ryan’s raspy vocal even better.

“Man,” Holden marveled as we listened, “the microphone loves Ryan.”

Geeking out on Ryan’s records was a ton of fun and incredibly helpful. It also made possible a rare flight of fancy on my part, in how I wrote about Strangers Almanac — which was something I struggled with because Strangers is a record that still means a lot to me. I don’t want to give it away here, so please read the book for that. But I will say that I don’t think I could have pulled it off without Holden’s help, which allowed me to get immersed in Strangers as never before.

Thank you, sir!

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