The new album by Chris Stamey is quite remarkable because it is unexpected, at least on the surface. Singer and cofounder of indie rock legends The dBs, the songs on his New Songs For The 20th Century collection are as much forward-seeking as they are retro-nostalgic. If you know Stamey's music, this album won't really surprise you because you know he has already written many wonderful pop songs in a classic sort of vein over the years with The dBs and on his solo recordings. For example, tucked away on The dB's fabulous 2012 album Falling Off the Sky is a wistful tune called "Far Away and Long Ago" which could have easily fit in this collection.
New Songs For The 20th Century was inspired by sheet music Stamey found in the bench that came with a piano he bought -- old school piano benches typically had a lift off seat that revealed storage space for music and such. Taken by the music he found on those pages, he immersed himself in these songs by the likes of Cole Porter George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and others. From there he composed his own song cycle of new songs inspired by those vintage flavors.
At the end of the day a great song is a great song no matter what form it is presented and New Songs For The 20th Century is chock-full of timeless hooks, choruses and clever wordplay.
The only other pop-rock artists I know of who have accomplished something akin to this are Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. Moody and blue, these New Songs For The 20th Century at times feel like they could have fit on Costello's more torch-jazz oriented albums such as North and his collaboration with Burt Bacharach called Painted From Memory. And I make this comparison as the highest of compliments because it's not easy to do what he's doing here!
Some of my favorites so far on New Songs For The 20th Century include "Manhattan Melody" and the clever "I Don't Believe In Romance." There are so many other great songs here -- this album is a rich listening experience.
Many terrific musicians in Chris Stamey's orchestra bring this music to life. From the official press release we learn: "Vocalists on the two volumes of this lush, orchestrated, jazz-flavored outing include jazz legend Nnenna Freelon, pop icons Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon, and Caitlin Cary (Whiskeytown), North Carolina stalwarts Skylar Gudasz and Brett Harris, and exciting newcomers Millie McGuire, Kirsten Lambert, and Faith Jones. Highlights include Django Haskins (The Old Ceremony) and renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis together on the Irving Berlin-like overture "Manhattan Melody (That's My New York)," and rising-star pianist Ariel Pocock singing "There's Not a Cloud in the Sky." Cary adds a bit of Americana into the mix, with "Your Last Forever After." All are backed by the "ModRec Orchestra" (named after Modern Recording, Stamey's studio home base in Chapel Hill, N.C.) with Bill Frisell, Nels Cline (Wilco), and Matt Douglas (Mountain Goats), as well as N.C. jazz virtuosi soloists Stephen Anderson (the Dominican Jazz Project), John Brown, Will Campbell, Jim Crew, and Dave Finucane taking turns at the microphone."
Not exactly what you might expect from a musician who was in a rough-and-tumble jangly power pop band in the 80s! But it makes perfect sense when you stop to think that Stamey had recently been the music director for the wonderful and lush tribute to Big Star - - known as Big Star's Third -- an assemblage that toured widely and issued a great final concert Blu-ray Disc which I reviewed here on Audiophile Review (click here for that).
At present, the 26-song New Songs For The 20th Century is available on CD and it sounds really good with no unappealing brick wall or other digital anomalies apparent to my ear. You can also find it streaming on Tidal in CD quality which sounds pretty good too, perhaps a tad more digital-feeling but nothing that would really get in the way of your enjoyment of the music. If you have a subscription to Tidal, you can find it streaming here. Perhaps someday we'll get a vinyl incarnation at some point in the near future. I'll bet this music would sound great in that format.
Chris Stamey's New Songs For The 20th Century sounds just right for these curious 21st Century times. It's a refreshing recording. You should listen to it.