Album Review: Chris Stamey — The Great Escape

Chris Stamey is an American musical treasure. Something of a local legend while growing up in Winston-Salem NC, he was even then recognized as someone special. With a background and early immersion in forms well beyond rock and roll, Stamey developed a wide-encompassing musical style that would serve him well. A contemporary, friend and musical associate of Peter Holsapple, Mitch Easter, Don Dixon and other future luminaries, he would collaborate, assist and work on his own. His work with Alex Chilton, Sneakers, The dB’s, as a producer and so much more are all rightly acclaimed. In recent years Stamey has expanded his scope to include modern takes on the Great American Songbook (and/or its aesthetic) and other styles.

But for his latest album – and first since 2020’s A Brand-New Shade of Blue – Stamey turns his attention back toward rock. The Great Escape is 11-plus (we’ll explain that in a moment) tracks featuring Stamey on lead vocals and a variety of instruments, joined by longtime friends and associates.

There’s an uncluttered production vibe to the album, one that places the focus on the lyrics, vocals and instrumental solo work. The opening title track is classic Stamey: intelligent and thoughtful lyrics, a strong chorus, a verse that adds dimension to the song, and a tasty lead guitar break. “Realize” is chiming pop, and would have fit nicely on Falling off the Sky, the (probably) final dB’s album from some years ago. Stamey has an unerring sense of melody, and can instrumentally conjure/convey emotion that supports the lyrics. And subtle flourishes – unexpected chord changes and the like – make his music both immediately accessible and worthy of deep-dive listening.

Stamey’s work with Alex Chilton is legendary; here he pays tribute with a reading of a song Chilton co-wrote with Tommy Hoehn, “She Might Look My Way.” The arrangement is clearly modeled on the manner in which Big Star might have played it (they didn’t). “Here’s How We Start Again” is a lovely slice of classic country. “I Will Try” is more gently rocking pure pop with an acoustic feel. “Dear Friend” is melancholy and (here’s that word again) spare, with some delightful dobro work.

There’s an autobiographical character to The Great Escape; it’s most evident on tracks like the mandolin-fest of “Greensboro Days” and the Brill Building-flavored “Back in New York.” The subtle, piano-centric “The Sweetheart of the Video” features some of the album’s most vivid lyrical imagery, and that’s saying something. “The Catherine’s Wheel” takes awhile to get moving, but once it does, the arrangement – especially the keening lead guitar – draws the listener in; it’s easy to image this tune as an extended live performance. The album’s subtlest moments come during “(A Prisoner of This) Hopeless Love.” This track could serve as a bridge between Stamey’s rock and, um, non-rock work.

One would expect a song about Stamey’s friend and sometime musical associate Van Dyke Parks to be jaunty, quirky and playful. And “The One and Only (Van Dyke Parks)” is all of those things and more. “His witty remarks are always top-shelf,” Stamey sings. (And he’s right, of course. He really is. Really.) The tune is denoted as a bonus track, though why this is so isn’t clear.

An electric mix of “Back in New York” is also listed as a bonus, and those who prefer the rock-leaning side of Stamey’s work may prefer it to the standard version. It’s the perfect way to end a delightful album.

(The streaming version of The Great Escape features yet another bonus track, an instrumental mix of the title track over which Stamey recites the album credits. Interesting, but – unlike the other bonus tracks – you probably only need to hear it once.)

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