Based on the title of Chris Stamey’s new album “Lovesick Blues” (Yep Roc Records), you might expect something as twangy as Hank Williams’ 1949 No. 1 country hit of the same name. But Stamey’s album is more Baroque Phil Spector than bar-room honky-tonk.
With production from Stamey’s kindred studio spirit Jeff Crawford, “Lovesick Blues” is an intricately crafted pop cathedral with strings and woodwinds, all arranged with the precise attention to detail Stamey is known for. It was only after the fact that Stamey realized what his album title might evoke.
“I didn’t think of that song until later, if you can believe it,” Stamey says. “But that’s the truth. When my friends and I were growing up and starting to play, we were all about the blues. That was what we played, influenced by Elvin Bishop and Michael Bloomfield and then backtracking to Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. So ‘blues’ has that connotation for me.”
“Lovesick Blues” comes in the wake of last year’s “Falling Off the Sky” reunion album with the dB’s. That was the original quartet’s first full-length in 30 years, showing that the Winston-Salem natives’ garage pop has aged well. But Stamey has been moving in more of an orchestrated direction for years, and a couple of “Sky” tracks featured elaborate arrangements.
Another of Stamey’s ongoing projects in recent years has been “Stroke It, Noel: A Fully Orchestrated Performance of Big Star’s Third Album.” It’s a series of live performances of the iconic cult band Big Star’s 1970s-vintage “Third/Sister Lovers” album featuring numerous young players from the local music community and big-name guests, including R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens. The show debuted at Cat’s Cradle in late 2010 and has since played as far away as Barcelona, Spain.
The “Third” show was also a natural outgrowth of Stamey’s work as “record doctor” for local independent musicians, mixing and tweaking their recordings to improve the sonics. On some projects, that evolved into Stamey contributing string or woodwind parts, harkening back to his days studying composition at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I started to really get into the possibilities and the language, the variations on articulation and technique,” he says. “Doing the orchestral elements on the dB’s record was really the first time I integrated this from the ground up. It’s a way of thinking, ‘What’s the coolest way to make it really blow up and get all the way there?’ Then I moved outside the safe confines of the studio for the Big Star’s ‘Third’ concerts and wrote new arrangements that were different from the records. Although live scoring is harder, it’s such a pleasure to hear this combination of electric distortion, drums and acoustic orchestral instruments. I’m still finding my feet but hope to be on even higher ground by next year. Learning by doing, scary but fun.”
As for “Lovesick Blues,” its tone is mostly subdued, especially the late-night vibes of the studio lament “London” and the moody salon ballad “Occasional Shivers.” Stamey made videos for all 11 songs, with a star turn from Tift Merritt (one of his many production clients) on the noir-ish “The Room Above the Bookstore.” The latter starts out with a particularly memorable opening line: “It’s a Leonard Cohen morning/We are sitting all alone/At a cafe in the Quarter/With espresso and a scone.”
For all that, “Lovesick Blues” has its whimsical moments, too. “You n Me n XTC” has a big, cascading melody that calls to mind any number of XTC songs, and the jaunty album-closer “If Memory Serves” hinges on a piano solo – played on a toy piano borrowed from Stamey’s daughter.
“My friend Holden Richards gave it to my daughter when she was young and I stole it from her,” Stamey says. “It actually gets used a lot but usually isn’t that loud on records. Jeff Crawford played that part, off the cuff.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat