Occasional Shivers / Chris Stamey
I was gonna save this for my Rock Waltz week -- but it won't wait.
This is from Chris Stamey's new album, Lovesick Blues. Now, I only recently got up to speed on his band the dBs, so you'll forgive me if I'm even behinder on Stamey's post-dBs solo work. This is like his third or fourth solo album (depends how you count) and I have no idea what they're like. I only bought this one in the middle of a YepRoc spending frenzy -- you know, Dave Alvin, Robyn Hitchcock, Fountains of Wayne, the usual suspects -- and tossed it into my virtual shopping cart for the hell of it.
To tell the truth, when I first listened to it, on my car's 10-CD changer, I thought I was listening to Michael Penn (another long-overdue post). Only gradually did it strike me that a) the vocals were way too nasal, and b ) the lyrics even more well-crafted than Penn's. I swear, I pulled the car off the road for moment and said to myself, "Whoever this guy is, he's an honest-to-god POET." I scrabbled madly around the CD cases scattered all over the seat beside me. When I pulled out Lovesick Blues, it was a real eureka moment.
And this song -- track 9 -- absolutely demanded I hit replay, over and over again.
It's a waltz all right, but a laidback one -- a real slow dance. I imagine it set at a party, a chit-chatty sort of cocktail gathering, the sort we grown-ups find ourselves going to every once in a while. He looks up and sees someone -- "Occasional glances / Across the room" -- and catches his breath.
But this is no "Some Enchanted Evening" love-at-first-sighting. No, no, no. They're ex-lovers, and I'm betting there was a time when strenuous efforts were made NOT to be in the same room, EVER. But time has passed, and all that has died down. Surely by now they can see each other casually without fireworks.
Or can they?
Clearly it's been a while. "Occasionally casually peck a cheek / to say you could still care / though that was long ago / years or days, I forget . . . " But there's the rub -- if he's vague, it's not because the memory is so distant, but because it still hurts like yesterday. And if the hurt is still there, so is the passion. Maybe they're here with other people -- but if so, you'd never know it, because those other people melt away, like everyone else in the room.
He still has no idea where they stand, and in verse two he desperately tries to read her, to get a clue. "Perhaps you remember the bitter taste," he muses, "Perhaps you recall with a smile." And it's not just her memory he's got to parse, it's her present intentions. "Perhaps you envision the rapt embrace," he dares to hope; but on the other hand, it could be "the tentative kiss of a child."
This is all playing out in real time, and I for one am hooked. That languid tempo is brilliant -- it's so wary, and yet so damn seductive. They're edging toward each other, circling around, testing the waters. The melody is part of the game, too, with its tender little chromatics and plunging octave jumps. It's a tough melody to sing, and Stamey's not a natural crooner. But I don't know -- there's a vulnerability to his nasal, tentative vocal that makes this even more poignant.
A million pop songs have been written about having your heart broken, but only a handful are about having to survive heartbreak for the rest of your life. (Readers, help me out here -- what songs do you know that fit that bill?) It's about being a grown-up, living with your own past. It takes a true poet like Chris Stamey to help us out with that.