It's fitting that Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey titled their new album "Here and Now" (Bar/None Records). Considered in the here and now, it's a mighty fine set of catchy popcraft you'll be happy to find yourself humming afterward. But if you get into the back story, issues of time and location inevitably enter the discussion.
Holsapple and Stamey haven't recorded together with the dB's since the early 1980s, and the last time they released an album as a duo was way back in 1991. They've spent much of the past 18 years trying to make various collaborations happen, but other things kept intervening. Some were good, including Stamey's burgeoning career as a producer and Holsapple's time with New Orleans supergroup Continental Drifters; and some were bad, like Hurricane Katrina's leaving Holsapple homeless until he moved to Durham.
"Yeah, we started this record when I was living in New Orleans, until the hurricane left me with no place to be," Holsapple says. "But good things take time. Sure, I wish I could be Ryan Adams and put out a record every six months. But I also like how songs develop over time. A lot of these songs started out one way and ended up at least slightly askew from how they began. I think that period of reflection was helpful."
Whatever the circumstances, "Here and Now" was worth the wait. Although it's not an official sequel to the previous Holsapple/Stamey album "Mavericks," it does continue in a similar vein of grown-up, immensely likable acoustic pop that wears well.
"Here and Now" opens with "My Friend the Sun," the cover of a song by early-'70s British progressive-pop band Family, and it's an incredible find. "My Friend the Sun" sounds like the great lost Beatles hit, a jingle-jangle sequel to "Here Comes the Sun," and it sets the bar very high for the rest of "Here and Now."
It's to Stamey and Holsapple's credit that their originals more than hold up. From the bouncy plain-spokenness of Holsapple's "Early in the Morning" to Stamey's dreamy "Broken Record," most every song has a hook that sticks.
"Here and Now" features contributions from the duo's stable of friends and collaborators, including their fellow dB's (Will Rigby and Gene Holder) plus members of Roman Candle, Superchunk and Chatham County Line. One unexpected guest is Holsapple's fellow Crescent City expatriate Branford Marsalis, who moved to Durham in 2002.
Marsalis' moody saxophone accentuates the ominous vibe of "Begin Again," which Holsapple wrote in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Marsalis adds upbeat good cheer to the perky "Early in the Morning." As it turns out, saxophone is a surprisingly good fit for Holsapple and Stamey's classically inclined pop.
"There will always be people who are allergic to sax, just as there are those who blush at pedal steel or wah-wah guitar," Stamey says. "But you can't worry too much about this or you'd never get anything done. Peter always wanted Branford to play on 'Begin Again,' since he's a fellow member of the New Orleans diaspora and that song is about surviving and comprehending Katrina. 'Early in the Morning's sax was a last-minute idea. The song has an early-rock vibe and innocence, and of course sax was a requirement on early rock stuff. You couldn't have a hit without a sax solo."
"Here and Now" was the last thing to be recorded in Stamey's old Modern Recording studio space, which was inside his Chapel Hill house. Stamey has since moved his studio to a separate building on the property, where his niche has evolved into helping bands tweak, mix and fix recordings they've already done on their own. Recent credits include excellent current albums by Rosebuds, Megafaun, The Old Ceremony and Mountain Goats.
"More and more, I've been doing mixing and remixing, specializing in getting the most out of cool records recorded in funky, low-fidelity situations," Stamey says. "Sometimes this becomes almost 'producing after the fact,' sometimes it's just a matter of getting the sounds to work together."
At some point, Holsapple and Stamey will also reunite with their fellow dB's for more studio work. Since playing a series of reunion shows in 2007, they've been working on what will be the first dB's album with the original lineup since 1982's "Repercussion." But it will probably be 2010 at the very earliest before that comes out.
"It's getting done, it's under way," Holsapple says. "So far, we have 17 songs recorded at various stages. Ideally, we won't end up with some crazy 'Chinese Democracy'-type thing. We just want to make sure it gets finished and that we're happy with it, so that's where we're at now. I wish I could say I knew when that would be, but I can't."
Fortunately, we've got "Here and Now" to tide us over.