(Chris Stamey, Will Rigby, Peter Holsapple, Gene Holder)
With The Mayflies USA
Friday, Feb. 2, 9 p.m.
Cat's Cradle, Carrboro
The fabric of music, like that of life, is woven from chance and timing. But for a broken bus heater, would Buddy Holly be here today? And what if J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson hadn't taken Waylon Jennings' seat on that ill-fated plane, or Richie Valens had lost that coin flip?
The dB's aren't dead. They're (slowly) working on a new album, and they recently played their first gig in Manhattan since 1988. On Friday, they return to the Cradle. The reunion, though, prompts such philosophical diversion. One wonders, for instance, what that ole angel Clarence would reveal if the jangle pop quartet had never been born. Balanced as things are on various tipping points, what can we make of the dB's contributions, their link in the chain, their success through popular failure? What kind of legacy do the dB's have, and—more importantly—why does it matter?
First, of course, the music still stands on it own merits: The Chapel Hill band's first two albums—barely available in the United States for a long time, as they were recorded for the British imprint Albion—reverberate more deeply these days than talented '80s new-wave and power-pop peers The Records or The Plimsouls. Both bands certainly picked up the thread that traces the Byrds through Alex Chilton and Big Star. But the dB's are the strands that tie those legends to the next knot in the rope, the infinitely more popular R.E.M. Let's face it: Between "Rock Lobster" and "Radio Free Europe," there are the dB's, still shining.
Then, of course, there was post-dB's Chris Stamey and post-Stamey dB's. The former went on to make a handful of solo albums and to produce bands from Whiskeytown to Yo La Tengo. After Stamey's departure, the latter continued to suffer at the hands of almost-there woes. IRS Records chose to dedicate all of its resources to R.E.M.'s Document. The consequence, of course, was that the dB's excellent The Sound of Music—itself in the Billboard 200—couldn't be kept in stores. Part of the dB's importance, then, is that, for so long, very few recognized that they existed, let alone mattered.
Still, their legacy is tied to that moment when they were part of what was bursting forth, that point before MTV completely capitulated to Michael Jackson and Madonna. They helped keep attention on the Southeast, not simply fixated on New York or Los Angeles. Around the same time, the West Coast was developing its own, more psychedelic strain represented by Paisley Underground acts such as Steve Wynn's Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, Rain Parade, The Bangles, and even the more country-flavored Long Ryders. For some reason—perhaps just the prism of pop culture history—music history is dotted with those stylistic swells. Proffering credit is essentially arbitrary. But there's no denying the Plimsouls and dB's position at the forefront of their respective waves. Ex-Plimsoul Peter Case has certainly forged a nice solo career, but the dB's footprint just feels bigger.
And it's not so just because of the triumph of R.E.M. (Let's Active member Mitch Easter was an early producer for the dB's and R.E.M., and the Sneakers bandmate of Stamey) or the recent renaissance of jangle pop. The dB's had ringing guitars and an anxious tension wrung from their rhythm section. They also had an odd, off-beat quirk to their songs that connects them to the nervy weirdness of The Modern Lovers or the Cars. Remember the way the synth trills "wop-wop-waaah" as Stamey sings of the rain on "She's Not Worried"? Or the hyperactive, church-bell abetted bounce of "Ask for Jill"? What about the impressionist racket on "The Fight?" It's hard to beat, regardless of time and context.
These are legacy lessons that are especially salient now. Even if the dB's return is brief, it's, at best, a signal of things to come. At worst, it's a r.e.m.inder that hooks, quirk and self-deprecation—swimming up amid a scene cluttered with eight-piece chamber combos and singer/songwriters revisiting '70s lite rock—can pull their own weight, thank you very much. Nothing is wrong with that, either.