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Jun 12

The dB’s: “Black and White”

The dB's -- Stands for deciBels

In their failed quest to become superheroes, the dB's attempt to manufacture a laboratory accident merely left them radioactive.

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The dB’s were arguably (and of course, when it comes to music opinions, what isn’t arguable?) the greatest of the power-pop bands of the ’80s, but remained always a cult band in terms of recognition. Poor record distribution resulted in their never quite finding a widespread audience and substantial airplay, although they were easily the equal of the bands whose classic power-pop songs are well known to radio listeners (The Records, The Plimsouls, Dwight Twilley). Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey were among the best songwriters of the era (Stamey was previously a co-founder of the Sneakers along with Mitch Easter, of Let’s Active and R.E.M.-production fame, and Holsapple later was a key member of the Continental Drifters, and became perhaps best known as a “5th member” of R.E.M., touring with them as a second guitarist on at least a couple of tours). The dB’s were often grouped together with R.E.M. in the early ’80s as part of the so-called “jangle pop” genre, similarly influenced by Big Star, but really their songs were much more tightly wound and experimental than R.E.M.’s, even if there was a similarity in guitar sound.

Their 1981 debut album, Stands for deciBels, is one of two dB’s albums featuring the original lineup (the other is 1982’s Repercussion). It’s a blend of Holsapple’s fast, ultra-catchy, power-pop confections and Stamey’s more off-kilter, slightly psychedelic experimentation. The two together make for an overall fascinating album, and it all starts off with a bang on the lead track, “Black and White,” a Holsapple song that should-a-been a hit. It’s a song about the trials and tribulations of young, presumably teen, love, not being sure of what one wants and subject to the ebb and flow of emotions:

I, I never would hurt you
But even if I did you
You never would tell me
Ooh, we are finished
As of a lifetime ago
As of a long time ago
But let’s stop

I don’t enjoy you anymore
Well I guess I just don’t enjoy you anymore
Well I guess it’s all laid out in black and white
You don’t like it at all

Holsapple’s voice on “Black and White” is very high, adding to the feeling that it’s sung from the vantage point of a teen boy deciding that maybe he didn’t want what he thought he did. The song’s fast, frenetic instrumentation adds to the turmoil of feelings, wound up until they’re released in a tidal wave — in an “I didn’t mean to have it come out like this, but now that I’ve started, I can’t hold it back any longer” kind of way.

It’s a fantastic song, and merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the dB’s full repertoire.

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