Uncle Jordan’s Vault: Stands for Decibels

standsfordecibelsAs someone who is fascinated by the rock star mythos, it always tickles me when rock stars make reference to other rock stars. While Pavement talking shit about Smashing Pumpkins never fails to amuse, it means a lot more to me when musicians pay homage to their influences, especially in an indirect way.

I was introduced to the 1990 They Might Be Giants album Flood in about 1993. I wasn’t necessarily that progressive of an eight-year-old (I voted for George H.W. Bush in a mock election), but my father and aunt were both obsessed with this record. Since I was a tiny child sponge for music, I managed to absorb all the songs very quickly and Flood soon became one of my life-long favorite albums. I probably still listen to it at least twice a month, and it continues to offer new morsels 20-years later.

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She doesn’t have to have
Her dB’s record back now
But there’s not a lot of things
That she’ll take back

Within “Twisting,” a semi-bitter ode to a failed relationship, lies the key to TMBG’s seeming lack of precedent. John Flansburgh and John Linnell operated so thoroughly on the next level that it was easy to assume that they came from absolutely nowhere. Luckily, like most rock superfans, they weren’t shy about calling out their influences.

Aside from Beat Happening…

…Which is admittedly a tough sell,

They Might Be Giants both name-checked and drew much inspiration from an obscure band called The dBs. Though calling someone a “DB” has a bit of a negative connotation these days, the title of the group’s 1981 debut made their rationale quite clear. When Stands for Decibels came out, it made whatever the opposite of a splash is. Like a lot of records that would later prove to be incredibly important, nobody noticed it at the time.

I want to say it’s a shame that the dB’s stayed so far under the radar. However, the truth is that if they had gotten their due at the time, a bunch of horrible people like me would be complaining that they sold out when they played with Bieber at the Superbowl.

But unlike the band Beat Happening above, there was definitely a market for the dB’s in the early 80’s. At a time when bands like the Cars and Talking Heads were hitting it big with punk-influenced new wave, the dB’s were essentially doing the same thing, and covering a lot more ground while doing it. Like a lot of excellent groups, the dB’s were fortunate enough to have two distinct songwriting personalities running the show. Chris Stamey contributed songs that owed quite a debt to art-rock. He tended to write the more surreal/psychedelic-influenced numbers with less traditional rhythms. (Check out “Cycles Per Second”). Peter Holsapple’s songs were a lot more power-pop influenced. The album opener, “Black or White” is a great example of his sensibilities. When you put Stamey and Holsapple together, you get a new wave masterpiece that still has quite a few shards of punk attitude within it.

Of course, when the dB’s set out to write a straight-forward ballad, the sheer strength of their melodies virtually guarantees success. Though “Judy” didn’t appear on original releases of Stands for Decibels,  it’s now the final track on the album, and it serves as a fitting coda for a record that is almost bursting with musical ideas.

If you like Big Star, Teenage Fanclub or They Might be Giants, I can think of no better use of your time than to check out the dB’s-Stands for Decibels. But, I guess, who am I to judge how you use your time?

2 comments to “Uncle Jordan’s Vault: Stands for Decibels”
  1. Interesting side note: The dBs’ Chris Stamey played with Alex Chilton and the Cossacks for a bit in the late ’70s.

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