The dB’s surfaced in the early ’80s with a pair of records, beloved by jangle-pop fans and ignored by everyone else, that featured Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey splitting songwriting and singing duties while drummer Will Rigby and bassist Gene Holder kept things moving with their fresh, nimble rhythms. But Stamey quit the band after that, leaving Holsapple in charge for a couple more albums before everyone found gigs elsewhere. Devoted fans might have tracked down two posthumous releases of dB’s demos and two CDs that Holsapple and Stamey put out as a duo in ’92 and 2009, but though the band has played together from time to time, rumors of a full-on reunion album had seemed like idle talk.
Until last month, that is, when Falling off the Sky (Bar/None) appeared. It’s a winner, with Holsapple’s power-pop prowess coming to the fore on “That Time Is Gone” and “World to Cry,” and Stamey’s synthesis of oddness and sophistication in full bloom on “Collide-oOo-Scope.” Even Rigby takes a turn at the mic, wheezing like a geezer on “Write Back,” which turns out to be the record’s catchiest tune. They don’t sound like the twentysomethings they were in their heyday, and they sure don’t sound like the current crop, but the dB’s prove that indie-rock lifers aren’t ready to be eulogized.
Still, first-wave fans are likely to prefer the early stuff, if only because they’ve spent more time and money on it. More than 30 years after the dB’s debuted with 1981’s Stands for Decibels, it’s hard to believe that no American label would touch them. They grew up in North Carolina and were based in New York, but their U.S. fans had to buy records imported from England to hear the poppy “Black and White” and “The Fight,” both by Holsapple, or Stamey’s wiry “Espionage.” It was a different time then; indeed, the dB’s helped build the underground music infrastructure, along with compatriots like R.E.M. (with whom they toured) and Mitch Easter. In retrospect, it all sounds so good, so normal — and, unlike ’82’s Repercussion, mostly free of the decade’s cheesier production flourishes — that you can only be grateful that the men who made it are still on the job.