Chris Stamey has taken many unpredictable paths in a long career, whether as a member of the dB's, a solo artist, a producer, or a sideman. But his latest project might be his most unpredictable yet. New Songs for the 20th Century, credited to Stamey and the ModRec Orchestra and newly released by Omnivore Recordings, is a sprawling double-album love letter to traditional (read: pre-rock and roll) vocal pop with a heavy jazz emphasis. Written, arranged, mixed, and produced by Stamey, these mostly new compositions have been crafted "under the influence" of Berlin, Kern, Porter, Rodgers, The Gershwins, Mancini, and Bernstein, and recorded by a large, eclectic cast of singers and musicians. The core band features Will Campbell on alto and soprano saxophones, Matt Douglas on various winds, and Dan Davis on drums, among others, while Branford Marsalis, Marshall Crenshaw, Wilco's Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, and Nnenna Freelon are among the illustrious guests.
Sonically, lyrically, and compositionally, Stamey has done well by his mission to pay tribute to those masters of American song. Even if he doesn't always reach their lofty heights, Songs for the 20th Century impresses with its ambition and spirit. These 26 songs comprise a classy, tasteful suite, never resorting to pastiche or, worse, irony. There are some concessions to modern songwriting and production: the core orchestra includes no brass (Stamey has elegantly arranged for strings and winds), the song structures aren't usually AABA, and the rhymes aren't uniformly perfect ("train/strange," "signs/line," "know/blows," "time/mind" to name four). But the songwriter has peppered his new tunes with fluid melody lines and sophisticated harmonies, and adopted a lyrical vocabulary filled with words and phrases not typically used in today's pop ("exquisite," "lovely," "while away the hours," "ne'er-do-wells"). Cabaret singers would do well to explore this new songbook inspired by the themes of songs past.
Whether Kander and Ebb or Rodgers and Hart, Billy Joel or Alicia Keys, New York City always seems to bring out the best in songwriters, and the rollicking, ebullient opening here, "Manhattan Melody (That's My New York)," proves that the same goes for Stamey. Branford Marsalis' slinky sax wends through the Django Haskins-sung, Harry Warren-inspired ode to the Big Apple's sights and sounds from Veselka to Rockefeller Center.
"It's Been a While" casts Haskins as a restless soul looking back as he meets an old flame. It's just one of many songs dealing with time and regret. Stamey's musical cityscape is populated by characters who might only have one more chance at true romance. The ravages of time on big-city life (and naturally, love) are explored on the slinky but touching "The Street Where We Used to Live."
"I Don't Believe in Romance" conjures the spirit of classics like "People Will Say We're in Love" or "I'm Not at All in Love" - love songs that say the opposite. It's sung by Caitlin Cary, who sounds a bit like the young Carly Simon both here and on "Your Last Forever After," with the same blend of sensuality and conviction. Jazz great Nnenna Freelon languidly conveys the bluesy notes of "Occasional Shivers," while a mannered style is delivered by Ariel Pocock on the jauntily bouncing "There's Not a Cloud in the Sky."
The sequence of Disc One builds to a more "modern" sound. The prominent guitar and backbeat on the pretty, reassuring "Dear Friend" introduce a new color to the album. This song owes more of a debt to the second generation of Great American Songbook writers as does "Insomnia," the verses of which have a beautiful Bacharach feel; Nels Cline and Bill Frisell both lend their considerable talents. (While heavily rearranged here, "Insomnia" is an older Stamey cut from his 2004 album Travels in the South.) The rhythmic "I Am Yours," lacking significant piano, winds, or jazz accoutrements, comes close to a rock sound with its simpler chords, emphasis on Tony Stiglitz's drums, and even a dash of electronic percussion.
The second disc eases back into more traditional territory with "I Fall in Love So Easily," not to be confused with "I Fall in Love Too Easily," the 1944 standard penned by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn. (Stamey offers "apologies to Sammy Cahn" in the credits.) While one thinks even Stamey wouldn't compare his song to that classic, "I Fall in Love So Easily" is a sweet and felicitous match of music and words, performed persuasively by Millie McGuire. The mysterious "The Woman Who Walks the Sea" departs from the urban milieu and also flirts with Bacharachian territory thanks to its unexpected notes and short, staccato phrases. Kirsten Lambert has an enticing, melancholy Karen Carpenter quality to her voice which can't help but draw in the listener.
A jazz-blues-gospel blend permeates the theatrical "Beneath the Underdog," sung by the trio of Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon, and Django Haskins as "forgotten men...so hard to pay the rent, cheated out of every cent." The song originated in Stamey's New York-set radio musical Occasional Shivers, along with a handful of the other tracks here ("What Is This Music That I Hear?," "I Am Yours," "In-tox-i-cho-cli-fi-ca-tion," "Manhattan Melody," "Occasional Shivers"). The charming "In-tox-i-cho-cli-fi-ca-tion," a delightful ode to "a good cigar and a chocolate bar," is adorned with Weill-esque accordion played by Peter Holsapple. It's again sung by the expressive Haskins, perhaps the standout voice on this lengthy album. These tracks make clear that Stamey should next tackle a full-blown musical theatre work for the stage. The New York state of mind continues on the ballad "In Spanish Harlem" (another Stamey favorite from Travels in the South) which name-checks Kenny Burrell, Hal Blaine, and The Shirelles while its title references the famous song by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Phil Spector.
Throughout, Stamey the lyricist shines, as on the clever but heart-rending "For a Muse" and the evocative "Lover, Can You Hear Me?" While one wishes for a few more memorable choruses (or "hooks") in the effortless style of the masters, he also keeps the music and arrangements happily varied. There's a lightly Latin sound to "Unpredictable" and insouciant jazz beat on "I Lost Track of the Time," and a welcome flourish of trumpet on the Lewis Carroll poem set to music, "Life Is But a Dream."
New Songs for the 20th Century is a lot to digest in one sitting; a focused studio recording of Occasional Shivers, or perhaps multiple volumes, might have been preferable as an introduction to these gems. But this epic collection of new songs is ultimately both fascinating and rewarding, a filtering of the chic and timeless sounds of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway through Stamey's own alternative pop sensibility. Now, it's time for these future standards to take on lives of their own as interpreted by other artists; a songbook has also been released concurrently to the album. Until then, however, New Songs for the 20th Century will set the mood perfectly for that late-night stroll down memory lane. Martinis optional.