Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple
Christmas Time Again CD release show
With openers Roman Candle and special guests including Caitlin Cary, Lynn Blakey, Django Haskins, Ted Lyons and Wes Lachot
Saturday, Dec. 16, 9 p.m.
Local 506, Chapel Hill
There are better ways to waste your time than to expect a lot from a Christmas album. Every November, five dozen faceless compilations from record labels trying to siphon the capitalist spirit of the season flood store shelves. Artists long past their expiration date feel the financial compulsion to give their joy to the world once again.
But, since 1986, there's been a Triangle-based Christmas record that didn't feel like a cold hard cash-in. Instead, Chris Stamey's Christmas Time is exactly what a Christmas record (and party) should be—a celebration that lasts longer than it is supposed to, simply because it's so fun. It's a gathering of extended family, complete with stopovers for visits with familiar friends. There's the endearing nostalgia (Wes Lachot's moody "Christmas is the Only Time") and a bit of sad-holiday resentment (Marshall Crenshaw's AM radio "It's Going to Be a Lonely Christmas"). Laughs abound, as with The dB's Elvis-inspired take on "Feliz Navidad," but moments are reserved for solemn reflection, like Brent Lambert's "Silent Nocturne" for solo classical guitar. Ted Lyons plays the part of wacky uncle for "The Only Law that Santa Claus Understood," a song about Santa Claus as a gun-wielding poker addict who gets ballistic when he draws a bad hand. You know it could never be true, but—with childlike wide eyes—you believe every word he sings.
Perhaps it's because the name of curator Chris Stamey is a near-perfect anagram of Christmas (Christmasey, eh?). Better yet, it's because this is indeed a long party with friends: Stamey formed his first band, Rittenhouse Square, in 1972. When he moved to Chapel Hill for college, he formed the Sneakers, which morphed into the heralded dB's in 1981. dB's bassist Gene Holder recommended that the band cut a Christmas album, and Stamey finally decided to do it in the mid-'80s. The dB's cut "Christmas Time," a smiling but dejected guitar-led jangle about time moving too quickly between holidays. Stamey collected tracks from the other members of his own Chris Stamey Group and issued the seven-track EP on Coyote Records in 1986. Some 10 years later, former Coyote employee Steve Daly approached Stamey about reviving the album. Stamey agreed, adding nine tracks—including cuts from Big Star, Alex Chilton and Stamey's dB's bandmate Peter Holsapple (Stamey left the band in 1982, but they reunited last year and are working on the first new record with the original lineup since 1987). Last year, Stamey decided to revive the collection once more, renaming it Christmas Time Again and asking several bands he's worked with in the past decade and some musicians he's known for 25 years to contribute.
Given the by-the-generations origin of Christmas Time Again, it plays out like a map for some colossal building that hasn't been finished, offering unexpected insight into the sort of pop musicology that Stamey's three-decade career warrants. Such lessons are uncommon for Christmas records: Stamey plays on a third of the tracks here, and his contributions with The dB's (as well as those from Big Star, Holsapple and Dox Dixon) put the rise of college radio rock in an interesting light. Post-dB's, Stamey produced records for Yo La Tengo, Chilton, Whiskeytown and experimental ensemble The Micro-East Collective, and somehow, here, those disparate takes on rock coalesce under mistletoe.
Stamey's role as facilitator in the alt.country world is implicit here, too. He's produced or played with Whiskeytown, Alejandro Escovedo and Chatham County Line, and he introduced Thad Cockrell to Roman Candle several years ago. Stamey asked Cockrell to contribute a track to this third version, and in an up-all-night writing session, they turned out the gorgeous "Holiday Spirit."
Stamey produced the first Whiskeytown LP, Faithless Street, and it's always seemed as though his sense of hook and clarity, instilled by his power-pop past, lent Whiskeytown an easier temperament that made later Whiskeytown records so charming. Stamey's lessons, for instance, surface on the Whiskeytown cut here, "Houses on the Hill," from 1997's Stranger's Almanac. Stamey didn't produce that record, but it's easy to hear the influence of past collaborators like Big Star guiding Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary's exquisite harmonies, peeking through the hook.
Sure, a collection like this, culled from more than 20 years of friendships, sometimes sounds dated. But, hey, who do you think you're fooling with that Christmas tree sweatshirt, anyway?