Friday, June 16, 2023

Chris Stamey: “The Great Escape” (2023) CD Review

Last month saw the release of Life, an album by The Salt Collective, a band that features Chris Stamey, along with his fellow bandmates from The dB’s. And now we’re being treated to a new Chris Stamey album, The Great Escape. Are we getting spoiled by so much good music? Maybe. This one features mostly original material written by Chris Stamey, with one important exception, a new version of “She Might Look My Way,” a song written by Alex Chilton and Tommy Hoehn, one that Chilton had recorded with Stamey but left unreleased. Chris Stamey plays guitar, bass, keys and banjo on this album. Joining him are Eric Heywood on pedal steel, Allyn Love on lap steel and dobro, John Teer on fiddle and mandolin, Libby Rodenbough on violin and viola, Dan Davis on drums, Rob Ladd on drums, Jeff Crawford on bass (on a few tracks), and Mark Daumen on tuba. Brett Harris, Peter Holsapple, Caitlin Cary, Matt McMichaels and Dave Wilson provide backing vocals.

The album opens with its title track, “The Great Escape,” which has a bright, rather cheerful vibe, even including hand claps. A line like “Oh, here we go,” while being simple, has such a positive ring to it. It seems to promise a new beginning, or at least the possibility of it. And isn’t it what you say at the start of an adventure? This is a good song to take along with you on a road trip, and it features some wonderful work on guitar, especially that lead in the middle. “Daylight is three hours away/Hold tight, like wheels on a blue highway.” (It’s been a long time since I read Blue Highways; perhaps it’s time to revisit that one.) “The Great Escape” is followed by “Realize.” In this one, Chris Stamey sings, “It’s so easy loving you/And it’s all I want to do anymore.” Those lines ring true to me. With the craziness of the world, there are times when I just want to say the hell with everything except my sweet girlfriend. Don’t you just want to focus on love? It’s the only thing that really makes sense. And this is a love song, delivered in earnest by Chris Stamey. “But when I’m in your arms, the world’s so far away.” Exactly.

“She Might Look My Way” is the song written by Alex Chilton and Tommy Hoehn, one that Alex Chilton used to play in the late 1970s. He recorded a demo of it with Chris Stamey at that time, but that demo has not gotten an official release (though it is not hard to find online). Tommy Hoehn released his own version of the song on his Spacebreak album (which was also released as Losing You To Sleep). Chris Stamey delivers a wonderful rendition of it here. “I was prepared to go all the way with this thing/Really commit myself/Really submit myself.” It has a rather sweet pop vibe, at times feeling like it is at the edge of becoming a rock song, like when he sings, “‘Cause I need something I can use/And I don’t want to fight and lose.” Then “Here’s How We Start Again” is a gentle and pretty number, with both strings and steel guitar. Yes, it has some country elements, but also a bit of an early 1960s pop flavor, in the rhythm of the vocal line. These are the opening lines: “Here’s how we start again/You tell me a lie/I say I’ll believe in you/Until the day I die.” This track features a really nice vocal performance, with some wonderful harmonies, and is one of my favorites. This is a song that Millie McGuire recorded a few years ago (I saw Chris Stamey perform it with her in 2019, and it was one of the highlights of her set). “Though I know I can’t win/I can at least pretend/Here’s how we start again.”

“I Will Try” is a sweet pop number that begins with Chris Stamey singing, “I will try, I will try.”  Ah, what more can we ask of someone? “I won’t promise that the path/Will be easy to the last/And you will trip over rocks along the way/But I’m with you to the end/We are lovers, we are friends.” This song is kind of delightful, with an endearing delivery and featuring some nice work on steel guitar. “Though life has no guarantees/I am certain you and me/Will still be together at the break of day.” Yes, the one thing we can be certain of in this ridiculous world. “Dear Friend” has a softer, more intimate feel, and the opening lines brought tears to my eyes: “Dear friend, I know you’re sad/You feel like giving up/Dear friend, I know that times are bad/You feel like giving up/But it doesn’t have to be so hard.” He repeats that line, “It doesn’t have to be so hard,” because when things are rough it takes a lot for that message to sink in. Sometimes we just need to hear that someone is there for us, and this song provides that voice. Jason Foureman plays acoustic bass on this track.

“Greensboro Days” is another of the album’s strongest tracks, featuring an excellent vocal performance and a cool vibe from its start. And I love the way it builds. “I should have written you a letter/I should have tried to make some sense of it/But nothing could make this better/No excuses or sentiment.” There is more great stuff on strings. And check out that guitar work during the instrumental section in the second half. I also love that mandolin. This is one hell of a good song. It ends with the line, “And I am New York bound,” and is followed, appropriately, by “Back To New York.” This one has a somewhat jazzy aspect at the beginning, and also a bit of the feel of a show tune. This song about New York contains references to Bob Dylan (“jingle jangle morning”), Dave Van Ronk and Jack Kerouac. Interestingly, Chris Stamey goes from New York to Minneapolis, sort of the opposite of Dylan’s trajectory, with “The Sweetheart Of The Video,” a song with a more somber vibe, featuring some moving work on strings. “And for a moment there/She looks straight at me/The sweetheart of the video/Now just a memory.” And the music has the feel of memory. “The darkness wrapped its arms around her tight/And carried her away.”

“The Catherine’s Wheel” also has a somber vibe as it starts, beginning as a slower number. Then nearly two minutes in, it suddenly kicks in, which comes as a surprise, sounding almost like a progressive rock song there for a moment. And check out that bass work. The song then returns to that earlier sound before the end. “What will be remembered in the end/Only this, that love will come again/To us all, to us all, to us all.” That is followed by “(A Prisoner Of This) Hopeless Love,” which contains some pretty work on strings, particularly in the second half. “If you find a love that’s true, keep her in your heart/Jealousy and a wandering eye will tear your love apart.” Don Dixon plays acoustic bass on this track, and Will Rigby is on drums.

The last two songs are labeled as bonus tracks, though I still do not understand how the first release of an album can have bonus tracks, unless there is a vinyl version that does not include them. Anyway, the first of the two songs, ”The One And Only (Van Dyke Parks),” is a playful, delightful number. “He says he likes my work, and I’m surprised/I never thought I’d be recognized/By Van Dyke Parks.” Chris Stamey also mentions Syd Straw in this one. And then we get a different version of “Back In New York,” this one with a fuller sound, featuring horns right at the start. Will Campbell is on alto saxophone, Matt Douglas is on baritone saxophone, Evan Ringel is on trombone, and Ben Robinson is on trumpet. The horns get a chance to shine in the middle. “And we can turn our backs on history and all the rest/There’s no one else alive but us today.

CD Track List

  1. The Great Escape
  2. Realize
  3. She Might Look My Way
  4. Here’s How We Start Again
  5. I Will Try
  6. Dear Friend
  7. Greensboro Days
  8. Back In New York
  9. The Sweetheart Of The Video
  10. The Catherine’s Wheel
  11. (A Prisoner Of This) Hopeless Love
  12. The One And Only (Van Dyke Parks)
  13. Back In New York (Electric Mix)

The Great Escape is scheduled to be released on July 7, 2023. 

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