SMARTEST THING HE’S EVER DONE: Peter Holsapple

Rather than stay in bed, the Tar Heel power pop icon got up, hit the recording studio, and put in some serious sweat equity to craft what is destined to be one of the year’s most enduring, endearing releases. Visit Holsapple’s blog to check out his personal musings, details on live dates (he’s promoting the album with a handful of dates as the Peter Holsapple Combo), and future plans. Incidentally, he’ll also be releasing The Death of Rock: Peter Holsapple vs. Alex Chilton in October via Omnivore.

BY FRED MILLS

Last year, with the release of the “Don’t Mention the War” b/w “Cinderella Style” 45, North Carolina rocker Peter Holsapple set in motion a domino effect set of expectations among his fanbase—most of whom had been following the songwriter since his power pop dB’s days (and some of us since his prior tenure with Chapel Hill garage outfit the H-Bombs, or his even earlier high school bands in Winston-Salem). It had been quite some time since Holsapple had issued anything as a solo artist, yet at the time of the single, he opted to demur when questions about a full-length cropped up. As I subsequently wrote in my review of the single, “He told me that he opted for doing a single because he wasn’t quite sure he should thrust a full album’s worth of new material into the market, given music consumers’ relatively short attention spans and tendency to favor tracks over albums nowadays.”

But it would appear that the good Mr. H was indeed eyeing the long game. Ergo, Game Day (Omnivore), his first full-length solo rec in over two decades, a bakers-dozen worth of tunes, plus a bonus track and two “super bonus” tracks. Indeed, it has been 21 years since the release of the wonderful Out of My Way, although he hasn’t exactly been a recluse in the interim, having teamed with his old dB’s pal Chris Stamey for 2009’s Here And Now (a kind of belated followup to the duo’s ’91 album Mavericks) and a pair of singles; released several titles with the Continental Drifters; and of course reunited with the dB’s in 2012 for the Falling Off the Sky album and Revolution of the Mind 12” EP.

Still, this new album marks a welcome re-emergence precisely because Holsapple’s musical choices over the years have always been studied and deliberate, never random, and certainly not in the service of simply getting some “product” into the bins. (Peter, here’s the point where we can hear you saying, in your best John Cleese voice, “What’s wrong with putting product in the bins?” –Tar Heel Ed.)

He states his intentions at the beginning, in “Game Day”:

“My horoscope read,
‘You oughta stay in bed.’
My doctor said,
‘It’s all in your head;
It’s only rock ‘n’ roll;
It’s not getting old;
There’s no reason to quit;
So you better get used to it…’”

Indeed, Game Day is a deeply personal album, rife with self-scrutiny and autobiography, from that title track (a thrumming, anthemic number that also references times spent in the van with fellow bandmembers) and caustic garage rocker “In Too Deep” (a kind of self-j’accuse alluding to a litany of unspecified personal sins); to a strummy, insistent confessional called “The Better Man” that at times brings to mind midperiod Ray Davies, and the remarkably naked—speaking of confessionals—“Yelling At Clouds,” whose deployment of a waltzing, elegant, almost baroque arrangement can’t disguise the songwriter’s insecurities and frustrations. And dB’s devotees will cheer the arrival of “Not Right Now,” a spooky, shimmering slice of psychedelic-tinged power pop that sounds like it could have been plucked from the group’s early ‘80s repertoire. Listen closely and you’ll also hear sonic and lyrical echoes of “Sealed With a Kiss,” a 1962 hit single by pop artist Brian Hyland, and a tune that Holsapple undoubtedly heard as a kid scores of times on AM radio in the early ‘60s.

It’s a mature, songwriter’s songwriter album, although not one so deliberately omniscient and wise-beyond-the-years that you would call it Dad Rock. Instead, it’s the logical extension of such memorable Holsapple moments as the deeply moving “The Child in You” (from the aforementioned Mavericks collab with Stamey), the frustrated/self-effacing “Spitting In the Wind” (on dB’s 1984 album Like This), and the downcast “We Were Happy There” (1981’s Repercussion).

Over the years Holsapple has typically nurtured his lyrical introspection, as befits a fan of such iconic navel-gazers as Alex Chilton and Todd Rundgren, often mounting a buoyant sonic arrangement to soften his concurrent natural cynicism, and always managing to achieve the perfect balance upon the sonic/emotional tightrope he toes. Game Day is rife with musical gems—it includes both sides of the 2017 single mentioned above (as the “super bonus tracks”) along with a rowdy cover of Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes”—guaranteed to charm even the most cynical indie rock devotee down out of their tribal treehouse. It’s also a solo record in the truest sense of the word, Holsapple having cut nearly all of it by himself (at, ahem, the popular “Bill Ding Studio,” proof that the guy’s no blockhead at the mixing desk), with only a handful of assists from friends ‘n’ family.

The closing track “The Smartest Thing I’ve Ever Done,” a terrific slice of indie rock rich with vocal harmonies and twang/surf guitar, serves as a kind of musical mini-memoir for the songwriter, who flips through the pages of his mental photo album, pausing here and there to reflect on some of the missteps he’s made over the years. Sings Holsapple, in an off-the-cuff, semi-sarcastic manner:

“There is no sense in what I say, what I’ve done, or what I try to do;
It took a good long while to get me here, standing here in front of you.
I travel, live, and learn, giving back the ways I could—
Sometimes that sounds pretty good to me.
And there is no reason to rejoice, I was just born without a voice;
The words spill out from my mouth, so to sort the meanings out.
And I’ve been told a thousand times by people better than myself
That this was not the smartest thing that I’ve ever done.
No, not so smart—I agree!”

And with that, he ties together everything that he set in motion 12 songs earlier, in deeply satisfying fashion, a guy who enjoys what he does and who’s apparently pretty damned comfortable in his own skin—which is more than a lot of people are willing to accept or admit to. Which is also one of the qualities longtime fans have always prized about Holsapple, both as a songwriter and as a person; we probably surrendered our objectivity many moons ago, and that’s okay. When the artist suggests, in his liner notes, that maybe we can “find a small place in our heads” for the album, he clearly underestimates what his four-decade-long contributions to the proverbial great rock tapestry truly represent to us.

We’ve reserved a place in our hearts, too.

Above live photo of the Peter Holsapple Combo (L-R Holsapple, Will Rigby, Glenn Jones) borrowed from his Facebook page.

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