For someone who has carved out his niche creating pop music with melodically angular twists, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that for his newest release, Chris Stamey would devise an album – a 2-CD set, actually – of brand new songs, composed in the style of songwriting masters such as Cole Porter, Henry Mancini, Irving Berlin and others. This album, New Songs For The 20th Century does, indeed, contain modern/contemporary “standards”. I’m sure the words “lush”, “orchestral” and “sentimental” have been offered up, but that’s exactly what this stunning document does present. Certainly, it’s the kind of collection that would be a wonderful guide for younger generations to be taught the art of songwriting from.
The way Mr. Stamey tells it, the idea came by happenstance (no dB’s reference here!): “One day in 2015, an old piano arrived at my home, with a bench full of magic: songs by Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Henry Mancini, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein… many more. I fell head-first under their spell, awakening three years later with a long white beard and this collection: 27 songs on two CDs, written and arranged “under the influence”, performed by some of my favorite singers and players.” He continues the notion further:
“I was intrigued by reimagining that period right before The Beatles appeared, before President Kennedy was killed, a time of cynicism mixed with innocence; when it seemed like the world was looking around, catching its breath and wondering what was to come.”
“What came first here was the sheet music, the notated chords and melodies,” Mr. Stamey explains. “I’d write out the songs in silence, then simply put the sheets of paper in front of the players and singers and let them interpret what was written, through the filter of their own experiences and finely honed skills. It was fascinating to hear them read the charts through, then bring the tunes to life in ways I’d never expected. After we captured their performances, I would orchestrate for strings and winds as needed, connecting the dots in the old-fashioned way records were made, before Leo Fender came along.”
These performances are excuted by The ModRec Orchestra, presumably named for Stamey’s studio, Modern Recording in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The list of players is long; you will find their names – to give them their due – after this review is complete. So let’s get to the music. The first song that struck me hard was the remake of his own “Occasional Shivers”, which first appeared on 2012’s remarkable Lovesick Blues album; the original was more stripped down – here it receives a slightly quieter but more full-bodied presentation, with wholly embracing vocals by Nnenna Freelon; “What is This Music that I Hear?” is delivered by singer Kirsten Lambert, whose emotionally warm voice brings the song’s spirit up. “Beneath the Underdog” features some well-known power players: Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon and Django Haskins as a singing trio; Brett Harris offers up one of the most outstanding performances on “On The Street Where We Used To Live”, which, in the immortal words of The Chairman Of The Board, “swings”… there’s a great deal of material to absorb and savor over these two discs.
Hence, I’m going to let you take the opportunity to listen and appreciate this for yourselves. It isn’t often an artist can come from one musical forum to take a leap forward by stepping backward by using the true classics as his palette to paint his canvas. Chris Stamey has done just that.
The ModRec Orchestra:
Will Campbell: alto & soprano sax
Dave Finucane, Elijah Freeman, Branford Marsalis: tenor sax
Matt Douglas: flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor sax
Bill Frisell, Scott Sawyer, Chris Stamey: guitar
Stephen Anderson, Jim Crew, Wes Lachot, Julian Lambert, Chris Stamey: piano
John Brown, Jason Foureman: acoustic bass
Dan Davis: drums
Karen Galvin, Katelyn Hammel, Laura Thomas: violin
Matt Chicurel, Emi Mizobushi, Aubrey Keisel: viola
Leah Gibson, Josh Starmer: cello
Written, arranged, mixed and produced by Chris Stamey
New Songs For The 20th Century is currently available