Beyond talented and prolific, Chris Stamey is important: a genuinely important figure in American music. But I wouldn’t even want to ask this versatile writer, guitarist and producer what he thinks of the word “jangle” anymore. My guess is that the tiny, localized part of the human brain devoted to that word has gone unresponsive and necrotic in him. Perhaps he has lost “spangle,” “tangle” and parts of “jiggle” as well; but that seems a fair exchange for some relief from what might otherwise be the bane of this poor legend’s existence. (Wait, is that not how the human brain works?)
It can’t be denied. Stamey is our most venerated and accomplished practitioner of the baroque side of jangle – languid chamber jangle in the tradition of the Byrds and in the explicit lineage of every hipster’s favorite original Byrd, the former New Christy Minstrel Gene Clark (whom Stamey and his through-thick-and-thin collaborator Peter Holsapple honored years ago with a lucid and faithful cover of “Here without You”).
As “jangle” really refers to nothing more than bright, arpeggiated electric guitars and nice Anglo melodies that steer clear of the blues, its founders and champions include everyone from the Beatles to the Velvet Underground and Big Star. But Jangle with a capital J – Jangle the genre – is a two-act story. Act One stars the Byrds and the Rickenbacker Corporation. Act Two is really all about Athens, Georgia, where Stamey and Holsapple’s cheerfully revolutionary pop band the dBs started a pretty big ball rolling at the dawn of the ‘80s. The interesting thing about the dBs, REM and the B-52s is that, excluding the definite article, none of their names uses words. That’s kinda the untold story of the Athens scene, isn’t it?
Stamey’s post-dBs career has included a steady drip of solo records, several notable reunions with Holsapple (1991’s Mavericks is an exceptionally likable effort and a personally significant album for me), a recent project with New York idols Yo la Tengo, a proper dBs reunion release last year and scads and scads of work as producer and sideman. His new solo album, Lovesick Blues, is a quiet and definitive demonstration of how it’s done, if jangle pop is your thing. It’s a lesson in how to achieve a sparkling grandeur out of elements quiet and small, without ever raising your voice or hitting anything intemperately. High jangle is an arranger’s art, and Stamey is the best. You step into these three-dimensional guitar arrangements as into a crystal palace like the one that now fronts SUNY-New Paltz’s Student Union Building.
The Muse-tempo of Stamey’s songwriting is slow and dwelling and born to jangle. His patient, long-throw melodies (sometimes so long as to seem aimless) carry a lyrical payload of literate, overtly heartfelt sentiment, lush detail and mature reflection. His voice is probably frequently described as “human,” which, for some reason, connotes vulnerability more than any other human attribute. Shaky, quavering in pitch but also utterly comfortable being what it is, comfortable being awkward, it is the voice of the human impulse to sing your life.
Chris Stamey with Jane Scarpantoni, Lydia Kavanagh & guests, Friday, June 7, 9 p.m., $18, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, www.bearsvilletheater.com.