Back in their salad days three decades ago, the dB’s were the last word in up-tempo snark. Simultaneously catchy and cranky, they perfectly captured that feeling of being ill-used by the world and rendered it as catchy, hopped-up kiss-offs, three minutes at a time.
All four members are in their 50s now, so it’s not surprising that “Falling Off the Sky” (Bar/None Records) – the original lineup’s first album in 30 years – is a bit less jittery than the old days. But some of its songs, like co-leader Peter Holsapple’s “I Didn’t Mean to Say That,” still seem very much of an emotional piece of the past.
“Yes, it’s the same abashed Southern guy with an agenda,” Holsapple says. “I suppose it could be the same guy who did [1981’s] ‘Black and White’ 30 years on, his disenchantment still in full flower. I’m speaking as the disenchanted florist, of course. External circumstances may change, but the elemental essence is still there.”
It’s been a long road back for the dB’s, who emerged from Winston-Salem as part of the same fertile Southern underground that yielded R.E.M. and the B-52’s.
Despite being released on a British label with scant American distribution, the first two dB’s albums (1981’s “Stands for Decibels” and 1982’s “Repercussion”) stand as new wave classics whose stature has only grown over the decades.
The dB’s splintered in 1988, but they’ve all kept busy. Holsapple played in bands including Hootie & the Blowfish, Continental Drifters and R.E.M.
Chris Stamey opened a studio at his house in Chapel Hill and became an acclaimed producer for Alejandro Escovedo, Tift Merritt and others. Will Rigby is Steve Earle’s regular drummer, and bassist Gene Holder does studio work in New Jersey.
With everybody’s schedules, it’s a minor miracle they were able to carve out enough time to make “Falling Off the Sky.” The album came together in fits and starts over the past five years.
“The procedure nowadays is to do it whenever everybody’s available,” Holsapple says.
“It certainly helps that Chris has a recording studio in his back yard, as far as getting it done. We’ve got a lot on our plates to work around. But dammit, we did it.”
In keeping with the natural order of things, Stamey’s songs on “Falling” trend toward the more cerebral, peaking with the gorgeous title track (sporting a descending guitar hook that really does feel like falling). Holsapple’s songs are more emotional and direct, while Rigby makes a loopy contribution with “Write Back,” a change-of-pace wild card. Reunion albums are tricky, and the dB’s have hit an adroit balance between acknowledging their history and updating it.
“When I was living in New York in my early 20s, songs were just falling out like over-ripe fruit,” Holsapple says.
“Things have changed a lot since then, obviously, and you don’t want to keep writing the same song over and over. There has to be some sense of progress, while not sounding like a whole different band. I think we’ve managed to sound like the dB’s, moving forward in time. You have to recognize change because it’s inevitable. Embrace change and it can be great. Trying to reject it is a hopeless battle. It’s OK to grow up, everybody does it.”
As for what, if anything, might happen next, Holsapple isn’t too concerned about that. Day jobs and responsibilities still beckon, and just getting everybody back together to make a record and play a few shows is enough.
“I don’t know how much of a ‘tour’ there will be, in the traditional hop-in-the-van sense,” Holsapple says.
“But we just needed to get this record out, without getting into that whole trying-to-grab-the-brass-ring thing again. What matters is that I love all these guys, it’s a pleasure to play with them and I hope I get to do it some more. I don’t have to be a rock star. The songs have to be good and the records have to be good, but I’m happy to leave the rock-star stuff to the little guys.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat