Chris Stamey

New Songs for the 20th Century

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It didn't happen overnight, but when rock & roll became America's principal popular music by the end of the '60s and youth culture came to dominate the nation's listening habits, a certain sort of sophisticated pop music, informed by jazz, show tunes, and the standards that were the bread and butter of mature vocalists, began to fade away. It never disappeared completely in the truest sense, but when songwriters like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Johnny Mercer were no longer regular visitors to the hit parade, a different sort of tunesmith took their place for most listeners. The work of Jimmy Webb, Paul Simon, and Lennon & McCartney, among many others, displayed a maturity and intelligence that made their work a good fit for a rich variety of singers, but not many people have explicitly tried to revive the sound and approach of grown-up pre-rock pop. Chris Stamey -- best known as the founder of power pop icons the dB's -- would, in some respects, seem a curious choice to take up this tradition, but there's no arguing he's a gifted writer, producer, and arranger, and he's embraced his fascination with mid-century vocal pop and made it the basis for his 2019 album New Songs for the 20th Century. Employing a small orchestra of instrumentalists and vocalists (including Bill Frisell, Branford Marsalis, Nels Cline, Matt Douglas, Marshall Crenshaw, Django Haskins, Kristin Lambert, and Caitlin Cary), Stamey has written and recorded 26 songs that evoke the sound and feel of another age, created with an eye toward polished craft and with barely an acknowledgement of rock & roll. This album conjures a sleek, after-dark feel of classy night spots and late-night rendezvous, with romance both successful and otherwise a common theme. But what's most impressive about New Songs for the 20th Century is that it never sounds like a pastiche or parody, as if Stamey is borrowing from the past as a gesture unto itself. Obviously inspired by music popular in another era, these songs are still clearly of the present day, especially as they ponder how big city life has changed in one man's lifetime (how that favorite restaurant is now a laundromat and the unavoidability of coffee places hawking internet service). These tunes are well-suited for the evocative sound and arrangements Stamey and his crew bring to them, and he doesn't overdo it -- the effect is lush but never overcooked, and the vocalists approach the songs with an admirable degree of nuance. This is music that reflects adult lives, with the tough questions and emotional consequences they imply, but without spoiling the fun, and Stamey never lets us forget that. New Songs for the 20th Century is a brave, ambitious experiment that works remarkably well; few rock songwriters have been able to reinvent themselves so completely, and fewer still seem so at ease with their adopted approach. It's a one-of-a-kind album and a rich delight.

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