If there were any question whether the first release in three decades by the dB's might be a nostalgic reach for glory days, they immediately dispense with such a notion with a vibrant and exhilarating lead track that declares, "You better wake up, wake up, wake up: That time is gone." This is not about reliving the past, though it's true the dB's are back on record for the first time since 1982 with all four original members—Gene Holder, Peter Holsapple, Will Rigby and Chris Stamey.
Those names are listed alphabetically of necessity—each piece of this lineup has accomplished a lot in the intervening years. Holsapple toured as a sideman with mutimillion-selling acts and was a key member of the late, great New Orleans roots rock supergroup the Continental Drifters. Stamey became a revered producer while issuing occasional solo records and ringleading a recent spate of Big Star tribute shows. Bassist Holder also racked up quite a few production credits, ranging from Yo La Tengo to Luna to Cowboy Mouth. Drummer Rigby became a fixture in Steve Earle's band and put out a couple albums of his own.
Falling Off the Sky seems in some ways a fleshed-out extension of Holsapple and Stamey's comparatively mellower 2009 duo album, Here and Now, as they carry the bulk of the songwriting weight. But the most immediately appealing track is one that Rigby penned and sings. "Write Back" marks the first time he's had a song on a dB's record, and it's a helluva start, with a Buddy Holly-esque hook that builds into a much more complex and layered arrangement than its simple melody might first suggest. That's the difference between vintage-1980s dB's and this year's model: Where they can take an idea for a song has almost no bounds now. A wide swath of local musicians helps expand the record's sonic horizons, from a handful of N.C. Symphony string-section pros to backup singers Jeff Crawford and Brett Harris to horn players Peter Lamb and Al Strong to their longtime friend Mitch Easter.
Stamey may have grown the most in the decades since the initial dB's albums came out, especially given his own recent self-criticism that "I did really bad stuff most of the time on those records." There's no doubting the quality of his contributions this time around. The title track may be the most prominent example, shimmering like a lost George Harrison gem with majestic guitar riffs, vocal rounds bouncing off each other in the chorus, and a tempo that seems to pick up as the song charges toward the finish line. There's muscular pop punch in "Before We Were Born" and "The Adventures of Albatross and Doggerel," and beautiful orchestral touches on the tender "Far Away and Long Ago."
As for Holsapple, the aforementioned tone-setting opener, "That Time Is Gone," is a bit like Buffalo Springfield's "Mr. Soul," if you overloaded the lines of its verses with twice as many words. It is probably his most important contribution to Falling Off the Sky, though it's not actually the best song he wrote for it. That would be the album's penultimate track, "She Won't Drive in the Rain Anymore," born of Holsapple and his family's personal experiences in moving to Durham after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their home in New Orleans.
And here's where the full beauty of what today's dB's can do in the studio blooms most brilliantly. All the musicians lay back with care and empathy as the verses unfold and the story is told: "Everyone she turned to for grace, spread out across so many states. What she'd give to see just one face that would understand, she had plans. And the plans just had to change; all it took was that much rain." The verses flow into choruses almost imperceptibly, awash in swirls of guitars and strings and heartbreak and melancholy and resignation and regret ... with Rigby's drums pressing onward, calmly and steadily amid the storm, steering the song through.