The dBs' first two albums, 1981's "Stands for Decibels" and 1982's "Repercussion," were two of the last decade's most influential American new wave albums -- and yet they were never released in the United States during the '80s. The North Carolina/New Jersey quartet set a splendid example of how new wave's stubborn anti-romanticism could be combined with melodic Beatlesque song craft, but the band couldn't get a U.S. recording contract. Nonetheless, the import copies (from England's Albion Records) were snapped up by American musicians (and critics) and thus enjoyed an impact far beyond their sales.
The dBs cleared the way for more successful acts like R.E.M., the Smithereens and Marshall Crenshaw, and set a standard these other bands never quite matched. "Stands for Decibels" and "Repercussion" have finally found U.S. release this year, as IRS has brought out the compact disc versions. The songs by singer-guitarists Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple still stand up as classics of the new wave genre -- as do the quartet's performances. And the dBs' lingering influence can still be heard in the new releases by such Beatlesque American new-wavers as Trip Shakespeare, Richard X. Heyman and the Sneetches.
Trip Shakespeare: 'Across the Universe'
Trip Shakespeare, the Minneapolis quartet that plays at the 9:30 club tomorrow night, betrays its Beatles influences in the title of its first major-label album, "Across the Universe" (A&M). Like the Beatles, Trip Shakespeare features two guitars, bass and drums, three-part harmony male vocals and ornate arrangements of catchy melodies. The band's name, though, suggests the combination of psychedelia ("Trip") and art-rock ("Shakespeare") that often leads the group into self-indulgent silliness.
"Across the Universe" was produced by Lou Reed's drummer, Fred Maher (an interesting choice, for Trip Shakespeare's drummer, Elaine Harris, is a wild woman who stands behind her drum kit like another Reed drummer, Maureen Tucker). Maher emphasizes the band's most attractive quality: the way its fresh melodies are driven forward by its garage-rock rhythms and flower into wonderful vocal and guitar harmonies. When this happens -- as it does on the album's first side and half of the second -- the music is so transporting that Matt Wilson's fantasy lyrics add to the sense of reverie.
When that power-pop momentum stalls, however -- as it does on the three songs produced or remixed by Tom Tucker or on the band's earlier albums -- the lyrics become symptomatic of the group's callow cleverness for cleverness's sake. Not only do the lyrics seem weird just for the sake of showing off, but so does the disjointed music. Nonetheless, on the best songs -- like the drum-driven, hook-laden first single, "The Crane," or the jangly folk-rock anthem, "Pearle," or the witty look at underground rock, "Drummer Like Me" -- it all comes together: the captivating melodies written by the Wilson brothers (Matt and Dan), the rhythmic energy generated by Harris and bassist John Munson and the reassuring oohs and ahs of the vocals.
Richard X. Heyman: 'Living Room'
Heyman, who spent the late '70s in D.C. as the leader of the Rage and a drummer for Link Wray, wound up in New York in the mid-'80s; there he led the Owls and recorded and released his own EP and LP. The 1988 album "Living Room!!" attracted enough positive reviews that Cypress Records agreed to remix it and release it this year under the same title. With its quirky rhythms and catchy melodic tributes to alienation, it comes impressively close to the early dBs work.
Heyman, who performs at the Bayou Aug. 2, also recalls the Smithereens' Pat DiNizio in his ability to link sardonic, alienated observations to buoyant pop melodies. Heyman's new single, "Call Out the Military," boasts the kind of tune that pulls the listener in with its sure-footed dance across the chord changes; it swells to harmonic grandeur with an open-string acoustic guitar riff and dizzying vocal harmonies. Heyman's lyrics, though, describe the frustrating invisibility of being "only one of the faces in a crowd." Call out the army, the FBI or all the record-company A&R men in the world, he sings -- they'll never find out what's really going on.
The single sets the pattern for the rest of the album: attractive melodies built into transporting harmonies, all to support Heyman's anti-romantic commentary. He makes a heartbreak seem insignificant by comparing it with the palace of Versailles; he invites a lover to travel to Cameroon, Tibet or Timbuktu, anywhere away from him; he compares lust to drug addiction and later to drowning. At times, Heyman's lyrics fall into obvious cliches -- a rich man who can't enjoy his wealth and a local paper that traffics in lies -- but usually his lyrics create a useful tension with his expansive, optimistic music.
Heyman wrote, arranged and produced all the songs; he did almost all the singing and playing as well. He's obviously in love with '60s pop-rock -- you can hear Beau Brummels vocal harmonies on "Call Out the Military," Left Banke harpsichord on "All for the Girl," and Chad and Jeremy duet harmonies on "Oh No Elaine." Most importantly, he has one of the rarest gifts in rock-and-roll: the ability to come up with fresh melodies. Thank goodness at least one A&R man tracked him down.
The Sneetches: 'Slow'
Of all the Beatlesque new wave bands to emerge in the wake of the dBs, none sounds so effortlessly lush and imaginative as San Francisco's Sneetches. On the band's new album, "Slow" (Alias), songwriters Matt Carges (lead guitarist) and Mike Levy (lead vocalist) not only create infectious pop melodies but also create the kinds of surprising chord changes and structural shifts that justify repeated listenings.
The album's first video, "Heloise," for example, sounds at first like a lazy, pastoral love song, but closer attention reveals a staggered conga rhythm beneath the steady trap drum rhythm, unexpected modulations and disorienting turns in the chord progressions. When Levy sings about "falling down in the sun," the sudden shift in Carges' guitar riff produces that sense of vertigo. Although the album's lyrics, arrangements and flower-splattered album cover suggest unrepentant psychedelia, this is psychedelia not in the sense of rationalized sloppiness but in the sense of expanded possibilities embraced and exploited.
The Sneetches sustain this sense of endless discoveries waiting to be made in all 10 of the album's songs. Carges never runs out of fresh musical ideas, and with co-producer Steve Savage, he never accepts less than perfection in their execution. Though "Slow" has been released on the tiny Alias label, it sounds like a big-budget production, with every detail lovingly set in place.