That Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple are popsmiths capable of penning tunes of breathless beauty and jangling joy is undeniable: For well over 30 years, they've written songs together and apart that caught listeners on the first spin. Their band, the dBs, helped herald the Southern roots-rock renaissance while drinking deep the bubbly power pop of Big Star. They've both had fine solo efforts since. But the past is past, and Here and Now—their new disc and first album together since 1991's Mavericks—fails to match the glory of their mutual exploits or even Stamey's recent solo work.
Like Mavericks, Here and Now forgoes the impulses of the pair's more rocking history. Thing is, the relatively spry Mavericks sported several great tunes, from the spectularly bouncy "Angels" to the sublime "I Want to Break Your Heart." Though there are a handful of winning tracks, much of Here and Now falls into a listless folk-pop torpor, unable to create much of a spark. It settles to the bottom of the tank of pretty but ultimately prosaic adult contemporary pop. The pace is a tad laconic, weighed down by too many lingering ballads lacking in crackle. It's like a 40-something ex-cheerleader leaning on her fading looks to make up for a lack of substantive personality.
At least Stamey's a terrific producer: The album's well-fashioned with plenty of resplendent harmonies and tasteful sonic flourishes from the likes of Branford Marsalis and Jon Wurster. Because it's so well crafted, many might even enjoy the effort, particularly those who share the material's enjoyment of the waxy backward glance. Indeed, an album-opening cover of "My Friend the Sun," a 36-year-old tune by obscure Brit prog band Family, sets the tone of seasonal transition. From Stamey's stately, relational paean, "Santa Monica," with its promise to "stay with you until my life is through" to Holsapple's horn-abetted "Early in the Morning," with its talk of going to bed at 9 p.m. and reading the obituaries, it's hard to escape the album's aging, reflective pallor. There's even a reference to Socrates' adage about a life unexamined not being worth living. All told, it needs a shot of Horace—"Carpe diem"—something awful.
Despite all of its delicate beauty, the four-and-a-half minute "Broken Record" outstays its welcome by a third. The instrumental "Ukulele" is but an excuse to use one, while the jazzy horn opening of "Begin Again" sets the stage for a meditation that would be at home on an Al Stewart record. The dainty, folk-picked "Bird on the Wing" might make David Wilcox fans happy, but adds little to the album or your pulse, for that matter. Gathered in the middle of the album, these tracks work more like an anchor than a wheel, plunging interest and momentum to the depths, squandering the energy of the album's best tracks—Stamey's "Widescreen World" and Holsapple's "Some of the Parts," which bookend them.
The former is an effervescent, hand-clapping rave-up whose good humor and Merseybeat bounce trumpet the global culture, while the latter's capering, twangy, organ-fueled lament offers a lighthearted, self-deprecating outlook mostly missing from the album. "Midlife, and where's my big parade?" Holsapple asks. "Half of me is purely artifice, which is probably not a lot of what you're going to miss," he later confesses. This whimsical attitude is shared by Stamey's album-closing "Tape Op Blues," which dissects the foibles of a band's studio experience with a humorous, knowing touch: "I've got a new guitar from Peru/ The other eighteen just won't do... The first few weeks went swimmingly/ We fired the drummer and drank coffee."
Were there more self-aware wit and less watch-glancing circumspection, Here and Now might survive all its downtempo droop. As is, though, it at least sounds nice. So does a nap.
Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple play Cat's Cradle Saturday, June 27, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12, and American Aquarium and Luego open.