New Songs for the 20th Century
Omnivore Recordings; Jun. 28
Neither Chris Stamey’s New Wave-era work with Sneakers and The dB’s nor his subsequent solo career contain much that might lead his longtime fans to expect the stylistic detour of New Songs for the 20th Century. But as anybody who heeded his 2018 memoir, A Spy in the House of Loud, should know, Stamey’s head has always held more musical info than the average rocker’s. And this double album is where he gets around to deploying it.
Stamey’s childhood in Winston-Salem was soundtracked by The Great American Songbook, though he eventually put the Gershwins and company on the back shelf to pursue a life in rock music. But when the piano that occupied his boyhood home returned to his possession, it inspired him to travel the path not taken. Having a solid grounding in the old-school mechanics of music, Stamey used that piano to write a batch of tunes paying homage to the great composers, replete with his own string-and-wind orchestrations.
Switching things up even more, Stamey recruited a crew of guest singers to front the tunes, not to mention some world-class players to flesh things out. Sometimes, the results seem like they could have easily emanated from 1940s Tin Pan Alley, like when Ariel Pocock leans into the Billie Holiday inflections on the gently swinging “There’s Not a Cloud in the Sky,” or when celebrated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon tucks into torch ballad “Occasional Shivers” (a ringer from Stamey’s back catalog), aligning with its ghostly arrangement.
But this isn’t a fetishistic exercise in period references. Amid Bill Frisell and Nels Cline’s pointillist guitars, “What Is This Music That I Hear” is jazzy and sophisticated but discernibly modern, with an adult-pop shimmer. And the melodic motion of “Life Is but a Dream” evokes Brian Wilson more than any pre-war songsmith. More than anything, Stamey’s excursion may simply be about reminding us of the tools that are still available to songwriters if they know how to use them—as he clearly does.
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