Indie-Rock Icons The dB’s Oversee a Quite Welcome and Long-Overdue First-Time U.S. Vinyl Release of Their Highly Influential 1981 Debut LP, Stands For deciBels

After the global onslaught of post-punk new-wave artists in the late 1970s like Elvis Costello, Blondie, Television, The B-52s, and Talking Heads, a barrage of U.S. groups like R.E.M., The Bongos, The Feelies, Let’s Active, Pylon, Mission of Burma, and Love Tractor started shaping the next waves (if you will) as the decade turned to the 1980s. On the leading edge of that gradually growing sonic tornado were the acclaimed hybrid North Carolina/New York power-pop indie rockers, The dB’s.

While it is important to at least understand and appreciate this group from a historical perspective — which we’ll get to a bit later on in this review — right now, we are gleefully celebrating the first-time U.S. vinyl release of their January 1981 debut LP, Stands for deciBels. This domestically bred LP comes courtesy Propeller Sound Recordings, and its official release date is next Friday, June 14. The label was gracious enough to send us here at AP our respective review copies early, so we wanted to let you know why this LP is so important in regard to much of the music we listen to and love on vinyl to this day.

In the official press release, founding member Chris Stamey outlines some of the band’s roots and the recording DNA within Stands for deciBels: “This was primarily a band-produced and -arranged record, recorded old-school analog in fits and starts at the dawn of what became ‘indie,’ at Blue Rock Studios, with producer Alan Betrock as an éminence grise to intermittently steady the ship. And after we’d filled up all 16 of the tracks on all the songs with a cornucopia of ideas, we lucked out: aces Scott Litt (at Power Station, NYC), Don Dixon (at Drive-In, NC), and Martin Rushent (at Genetic, UK) joined to help mix.”

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For more granular details on the creation of this new 2024 edition of Stands for deciBels, we were able to get firsthand insight directly from Propeller Sound Recordings’ Co-Founder/General Manager Jay Coyle. Regarding the sources used to make the new editions, Coyle confirmed that, alas, the original master tapes are, at present, “missing.” Instead, they had to use the digital files from the 1989 I.R.S. Records CD reissue to create all versions of this new edition (LP. CD, streaming). Now, before you start shaking your analog-lovin’ head, please read on, as the Stands for deciBels etymology gets pretty interesting — and it helps explain why the new LP edition is ultimately worth your time and money.

Stands for deciBels was remastered “with very clear and careful direction” — and ultimate approval — from the band by Bob Weston at Chicago Mastering Services, who also cut the lacquers used for the vinyl disc manufacturing/pressing. The stampers were created from Weston’s lacquers at Gotta Groove in Ohio, which were then sent to Third Man Pressing in Detroit, where the vinyl discs were physically manufactured.

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Digging a bit further, we were able to secure some additional clarification on a detail hinted at on the hype sticker that’s on the cover of the new vinyl edition of Stands for deciBels — and it’s one that appears underneath the album title, stating that this is the “2024 Remastered Edition.” Indeed, this implied language reveals that brand new mastering work was indeed applied to those existing 1989 I.R.S. digital files to create the new 2024 master used in creating the 2024 vinyl edition. Got that? It’s significant, so hang on to that detail for a moment.

The only “standard” version of the new Stands for deciBels LP that’s being issued is the version we were sent for review, the one that’s called “Black & White Split” color vinyl. Additionally, an admittedly super-nifty-looking pink splatter vinyl edition was being sold as a web exclusive from the official Propeller site — but, we’re sorry to report that, as of this posting, it is already sold out. Anyway, the SRP for the single-pocket B&W color LP is $25, and the album comprises the original cover art, including what seems to be the original inner sleeve, and they even recreated the unique look of the original Albion Records labels on both sides. Albion is the UK label that initially issued the LP in 1981. (You can order your copy of the new LP directly from Propeller here.)

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Now, before any of you get steamed up in an analog huff, this digitally sourced edition is actually a fascinating listen since a) the album sounds really quite good on this new vinyl edition, and b) it also sounds a good bit better than that 1989 CD. I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear things like this, I want to know more about the alchemy behind such a magical transformation.

On the digital front, I first compared the new 2024 Propeller CD version of Stands for deciBels to my original 1989 I.R.S. CD — the latter being the only version of the album I had in hand up to this point, truth be told — and I did notice the new CD is considerably louder. Even so, they seemed to have found a sweet spot, punching things up volume-wise and EQ-wise without completely brickwalling the thing to death. I did not find it problematic to listen to — as opposed to the recent Pearl Jam album Dark Matter, which I reviewed here on AP back on May 10. That being said, I can certainly understand The dB’s own desire to have new digital and streaming versions of Stands for deciBels mastered more loudly so their music might have chance at competing for audience mindshare in these brave new digital worlds many of us may inhabit (at least partially) these days.

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I’ll get into more about how the new Stands for deciBels vinyl stacks up amidst all this digital wizardry in a moment — but first, let’s backpedal a bit and explore some more background on the essential street-level roots of The dB’s, and how they came to be such an influencing force on the music scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and why they remain important today. Formed amidst the new wave/punk melting pot of the New York City metropolitan area, The dB’s actually grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, featuring singer/songwriters/guitarists Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, along with Gene Holder on bass and Will Rigby on drums. The group frequently appeared live at the legendary Lower East Side NYC club CBGB, as well as at Hoboken, New Jersey’s late, lamented Maxwell’s, and other influential venues of the times.

The dB’s extra-special secret sauce street cred came in part from Stamey’s ties to Memphis power-pop legends Big Star and one of that band’s co-founding guitarist/vocalists Alex Chilton, with whom he played bass in the late ’70s. Stamey also released, on his own indie label Car Records, the 1977 45rpm single of “I Am the Cosmos” by Chris Bell, the other co-founding Big Star guitarist/vocalist. Stamey’s ties to future Let’s Active founder and early R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter came through their teenage band Sneakers, which also included future dB’s drummer Wil Rigby. But wait — there’s more! Going back a bit further, we can find earlier-still bands they had together with future dB’s co-founder, Peter Holsapple.

Clearly, this group of musicians were something of a ground-zero nexus between the burgeoning New York and North Carolina music scenes, part of the formative fabric of the next wave of music which would eventually be labeled indie rock, or alternative.

Returning to the official press release for this reissue, we find there that R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills offers some crucial insights into the impact of Stands for deciBels in his — and his Athens, Georgia-bred band’s — genesis: “This [album] is the one that let me know we weren’t alone, that there were others out there with the same curiosity, the same willingness to dive into melody, structure, and pop sensibility with no fear, no reserve, only joy and well-deserved excitement. I still love listening to Stands for deciBels, and I always will.”

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By now, and with all that important aural DNA in your mind, you are probably wondering just how this new, first-time domestic vinyl version of Stands for deciBels sounds, especially given its sourcing. Well, all things considered, I think it sounds pretty darn good, especially given the circumstances of how it was made. Some of my favorite tracks on the Propeller-issued Stands for deciBels LP are “Dynamite” (Side 1, Track 2) and “Cycles per Second” (Side 2, Track 1). I really like the quirky, time-bomb-ticking feel of “Espionage” (Side 1, Track 5), which has nifty dynamics that let you feel more of Rigby’s tom-tom hits. “Tearjerkin’” (Side 1, Track 6) delivers some super-groovy electronic keyboards interlocking with very orchestral-flavored drumming and bass before the band kicks into a chorus that feels like a lost Monkees track.

As I noted earlier in this review, I also spent some time comparing the 1989 I.R.S. CD with the new 2024 Propeller edition. The original is super-crispy sounding — meaning, it’s a bit treble-heavy and lacking in bass and midrange — as many early CD releases could sound back in the day. When I tried turning that CD up loudly, it felt pretty harsh on the ears. Switching over to the 2024 CD, the music was immediately much louder, but the music also seemed to hold together better when I tried pushing up the volume a bit more. It didn’t get super-mushy. Still, it is overall a bit brighter than I care to hear at that volume on my home stereo system (though it does sound perfectly fab in the car).

Switching back over to the new LP edition of Stands for deciBels, the first thing I noticed is the powers that be have done quite a nice job in mastering this music for vinyl. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect they may have rolled off some of the harsher high-end frequencies from the CD, resulting in an overall richer, and ultimately more rocking, enjoyable listen. Don’t get me wrong — this is still a plenty crisp recording, but you can better feel Rigby’s punchy, driving kick drum and Holder’s plucky, percussive bass. There is still plenty of room for the jangling guitars of Holsapple and Stamey, as well as their fresh, and at times yelping, angular vocals.

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I do have to note a little ding that had to be accounted for in our Sound rating, due to some almost inevitable low-level audible whooshing on the black-and-white split color vinyl, especially if you turn up the volume while playing it. The noise happens in the transition from the black half to the slightly noisier white half. Fortunately, the music is loud enough and punchy enough that it really does not impact the enjoyment of the music — for the most part. But, as audiophiles, we also have to look for the best possible sound with our vinyl — and just knowing “the whoosh” is there is, well, an annoyance.

Musically speaking, Stands for deciBels is a vibrant winner. Pardon the cliché, but the original producers and engineers certainly captured lightning in a bottle here. As with the best early indie-rock releases, there is a palpable energy emanating from these grooves — something that leaps from the speakers. It may, in fact, make you jump out of your own comfy chair to pogo around the room while you’re listening to this LP — so be forewarned.

As far as our numerical ratings go, based on the above-noted impressions, we give the album a solid 9 for the Music, but between the CD sourcing and slight vinyl-pressing issues, we have to pare the Sound rating to a still quite respectable 7.5 (which appears as an 8 on the Sound ratings dial at the top of this review). Hopefully, someday, the original master tapes will be located, and then a fully analog incarnation can be released. But for now, Propeller’s new, 2024 inaugural U.S. vinyl edition of Stands for deciBels is plenty enjoyable and fun to spin — and that is probably the best summation I can offer to entice you to pick up a copy of this LP sooner than later, especially since it is also labeled as being a “limited edition.” Pre-order yours today, we say!

Mark Smotroff is an avid vinyl collector who has also worked in marketing communications for decades. He has reviewed music for AudiophileReview.com, among others, and you can see more of his impressive C.V. at LinkedIn.

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THE dB’S
STANDS FOR DECIBELS

1LP (Propeller Sound Recordings)

Side 1
1. Black And White
2. Dynamite
3. She’s Not Worried
4. The Fight
5. Espionage
6. Tearjerkin’

Side 2
1. Cycles Per Second
2. Bad Reputation
3. Big Brown Eyes
4. I’m In Love
5.. Moving In Your Sleep

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COMMENTS
Tom L's picture

Excellent album by this classic "jangle rock" band. Very influential. Back when it was released, it was one of the albums that only "cool" people had, ha ha ha. The band members are really nice people, too!
I do hate it when the sound on a vinyl release is degraded by trendy multi-colored BS. This should all be one color, preferably black.

Glotz's picture

Man, I miss the 80's for great indy rock. Loved IRS to the core. And the dB's..!

Stamey and Holsapple! Was I the only one that bought Mavericks back in the day? Great to see this LP re-released, but I will probably stick to digital releases. Not much one can do to improve upon that decade's sound... lol. Besides, LP's cost too much today and I spend way too much already month over month!

I was also a huge Let's Active fan back in the day- Kudos to Mitch Easter (and Don Dixon) for all of those key releases for REM. Music blossomed then with Murmur and Reckoning... and those productions were huge counterpoints to pop music in the 80's.)

Loved The Feelies, Love Tractor and Mission of Burma among others. Long Ryders and Green On Red come to mind as well immediately.

Thank you for the honest review and vinyl quality summary, Mark!

Tom L's picture

Yes, I bought Mavericks and sold quite a few copies in the record store I managed by playing it in store. Saved a poster and got it signed years later at a Holsapple-Stamey house concert. Then there was the not-quite-as-wonderful Here and Now from 2009. Promoted a Mitch Easter show when he went on a short tour after releasing Dynamico in 2007. He says he has a bunch more material, I want to hear it! Those bands you mention are still some big favorites of mine. Chuck Prophet from Green on Red continues to amaze, going to see him with his band the Mission Express later this week.

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