Recorded in three days, backed by Yo La Tengo and assorted others, consisting mostly of politically-engaged covers, A Question of Temperature
should, by all rights, be a throwaway. Indeed, its opening blare of unmodulated feedback, "Conspiracy Theory", suggests an album whose material didn't quite fill the space. Yet one track in, with the clatter of drums, the vertical stab of guitars at the start of "Shapes of Things", you realize that this is something special, a loose and musically adept excursion into old and new sounds, bound together with true-believer passion, but never taking itself too seriously.
A trio of late-1960s covers give the album its political slant. The Yardbirds psych-tinged "Shapes of Things" connects the dots from Vietnam to Baghdad with its angular chorus of "come tomorrow / will I be bolder / come tomorrow / be a soldier", while Cream's "Politician" (from 1968's Wheels of Fire) puts a heavy blues riff under lyrics about sleaze and graft and big black limousines -- as relevant to Dick Cheney and Halliburton as it was to Robert McNamara. The best of the three, however, is also the cover that falls furthest from the tree. Stamey's version of Les McCann and Eddie Harris's "Compared to What" channels the original's vitriolic cynicism, and even echoes its jazz-tinged keyboard line, but where the 1968 version (recorded at Montreux Jazz Festival) had a loungy, laid-back air, this one drives hard and fast. There's a frantic push to the bass, here played by former dBs collaborator Gene Holder, that spills out into the splatter-painted piano chords and anxiety-ridden organ solo mid-cut. There's nothing historical, nothing museum-quality about this track -- it's as real and urgent and important as anything written last week. (There's also a very pretty, jangle-pop-leaning cover of Television's "Venus", which seems to have no axe to grind, politically speaking.)
The album's other highlight comes nearer the end, in the nearly eleven-minute rendition of "McCauley Street (Let's Go Downtown)". According to Stamey, this cut was the impetus behind his collaboration with Yo La Tengo; on writing the song, he immediately felt that it would sound better with them involved. It begins with a minimally limned but powerful sketch of Candy, who lives upstairs ("with a cat named dog / and a fish named Rover"), surrounded by New Yorkers and existing mostly in her own head. It's a masterfully executed slice of songwriter pop that reaches its culmination with the phrase, "when the night comes down....she says, hey, let's go downtown." You have to hear it to understand, but it's a nearly perfect match of melody and words, particularly when backing vocalist Caitlin Cary adds her soft harmonies to the mix. Then, as if you're at a concert hearing an old favorite song evolve into something new, a squall of feedback breaks the song in two. Chaotically gorgeous clouds of guitar erupt from the song's simple chord structure, swirling in waves, then abruptly getting sucked back into the bottle. The song ends as it began, with sweet guitar chords and elliptical observations about Candy.
After "McCauley Street", A Question of Temperature seems to run out of ideas. There's a raved-up rockabilly song called "Desperate Man", alternate versions of "Sleepless Nights" and "Summer Sun", an odd instrumental and Stamey's "Rock the Vote" PSA. It's all pleasant, but unremarkable. Still, if you skip the first track and stick mostly to the first two-thirds of the record, A Question of Temperature ranks as one of the most enjoyable albums of this still-young year.