Lovesick Blues is a musical anomaly, a seamless confluence of sounds that often clash. Cumulus orchestral pop disguises threatening thunderboomers, both backlit by melodies so bright and sharp that they rightfully earn the Beatles tag. The graceful string and woodwind sections drive the tempos rather than drag against them, the music percolating irresistibly against Chris Stamey's melancholy embrace. With some of the most evocative lyrics of his three-decade-plus career, Stamey leads this exploration of glimmering jangle, billowing psychedelia and sophisticated chamber pop with pure aplomb and assurance. It's the sound of a master out in front of his multiple skill sets at once.
Stamey casts these 11 bittersweet tunes upon a wall of middle-age circumspection. Stamey wrote the bulk of Lovesick Blues during one two-week stretch. He recorded the basic tracks quickly, with the orchestral flourishes tastefully added later. The result is an album that feels consistent and coherent, in spite of a cast of songs that feel distinct and divided. As though he were a jaded realtor showing a couple their 15th house, Stamey brings a world-wizened professionalism to these Blues.
It comes, after all, at a creative high-water mark for Stamey. Since returning from a nine-year hiatus with 2004's Travels in the South, he has recorded an album with Yo La Tengo, a duet disc with former dB's partner Peter Holsapple, and reunited that band for several shows and last summer's Falling Off the Sky. He's also orchestrated an immersive and much-acclaimed tribute to Big Star. But of all these efforts, Lovesick Blues might be Stamey's best because it strikes a near-perfect balance of elegance and propulsion, languor and pep.
This album, as Stamey has repeatedly told the press, is his closest approximation yet to music as he hears it in his head. No wonder he spends a lot of time up there: Like visiting the Louvre, you'll wander through halls of peerless beauty. Indeed, on the bouncy "If Memory Serves," Stamey sings: "In the labyrinth of hopes and dreams, there's nothing quite the way it seems/ You paint the picture as you please, for after all, they're only memories." That credo also reflects the album's witness-oriented essence; he's the narrator of exact details and emotions, telling us how they felt and looked.
The opening pair "Skin" and "London" operate as Stamey's yin and yang. During the folk-tinged, cello-abetted "Skin," Stamey connects across the room, thematically echoing the Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror." He describes her presence and offers the sweet refrain, "This is what it feels to be you." Its successor is a song of dislocation, where Stamey considers his left-at-home partner during the late-night witching hour. Stamey references an AWOL bassist, selling these narrators with such details that he leads one to ponder the album's level of autobiography.
That feeling slices deep on the album's fourth track, "Anyway," a psych-folk number that falls like snow caught between Moody Blues and Fairport Convention. "Isn't it odd how nothing ever lasts very long?" Stamey asks. "I guess I always thought forever meant forever. Funny the way we turn forever into never."
The pensive ache of Lovesick's opening third sets the emotional scale for the album, which ranges from "bewildered and bemused" longing to the piano torch-pop aftershocks of "Occasional Shivers." The acoustic "Wintertime" is requisitely icy, an effect enhanced by the backing vocals of Skylar Gudasz.
Stamey tries entirely new approaches here: The most distinctive might be "The Room Above the Bookstore," which uses congas, strings that rustle as if being followed and a cello's loom to suggest a beatnik vision of pop. Full of arresting, evocative images, Stamey suggests the Mountain Goats' visual acuity—"waiters clear the tables, sparrows clean the bones" and "the telegraphic chatter of the rain as it comes down." And on the nearly seven-minute title track, his great melodic ken and proper power-pop lilt grow into something more as he ponders life on his own. The song builds from a rather bereft opening into a strangely exultant slow-burning blues-based rocker, backed by trilling strings. It's at once majestic and earthy, a feat that's emblematic of Lovesick Blues' rarified musical and emotional balance.
Truth is, if Chris Stamey sounds any better than this in his own head, it's a wonder he talks to us at all.
Label: Yep Roc
This article appeared in print with the headline "Veteran volleys."