Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Kelley Stoltz: Circular Sounds

Kelley Stoltz

Circular Sounds
Sub Pop Records

I'm not sure why some people consider lo fi to be cool. The word conjures up listening to feedback on one of those 1 speaker portable blasters or those super cheap earbuds that many of us listened to as kids. It doesn't seem to coincide with good music, but an image. Lo fi is really a great aesthetic of not using digital recording equipment or instruments. In other words, one can a get a rich, clear recording out of analog equipment that if it's done right, is a high fidelity recording and a great reproduction. It doesn't necessarily sound lo fi. Many artists that we listen to have this approach, and we're lucky for that. Michigan born, San Francisco based Kelley Stoltz is known for making lo fi recordings of the more solo, basic nature of lo fi. His earlier releases have a strong following both in The States and Australia, and his psych pop sensibility has earned him a certain amount of criticism of being an "indie" type who goes for a certain sound but lacks the inspiration to make it his own. His previous work has had a basic, stripped down approach that has been compared to Velvet Underground, Ray Davies and plenty of other rock 'n' roll pioneers. Although one can hear those influences on his fourth and also self produced release Circular Sounds, there's a greater range in experiment and instruments, mostly played by Kelley himself and a few guests. Circular Sounds is a rich, warm, great sounding and thoroughly modern piece of blues rock influenced, hi fi psychedelic pop. Applying the term "pop" to him is pretty loose, however. A more apt description would be a basic blues approach without an emphasis on electric guitars, so it's still basic, not as loud, and carries psychedelic nuances with different instruments. which goes to say it's a rock album for those who love music that goes outside of predetermined boundaries.

It's true that great rock 'n' roll is basic. That doesn't mean that great rock 'n' roll always has to be loud and guitar chord based. The musical genius and innovation comes from what can be created out of it. For example the opening "Everything Begins" could have come from an outtake from a mid 70's Kinks album, but has its musical drive from a lively horn section, which are all played by Kelley except the saxophone, courtesy of Kevin Ink. The addition of a bright sounding xylophone and vaudeville piano give it a strange, almost upbeat feel that is just strange enough to make the listener a little unsure of where this is going. It's kind of cool and strange, thus maybe reminding one of the later works of Flaming Lips. The followup "Tintinnabulation" is a bit more familiar, but somewhat challenging wiit's great reverb guitar overlayed by a catchy piano melody that almost channels Mother's Little Helper but again, reminds one of how the basic structure becomes something original onto its self. One must take active note that it's very hard not to draw comparisons, but they're there for the sake of context and in no way take away from the originality of Circular Sounds, but provide a strong frame of reference. There's a hint of VU's "Loaded" on "The Birmingham Eccentric," but the comparison once again, ends with the basic structure. Great rock 'n' roll is full of people who experimented like The Beach Boys Pet Sounds or The Ramones turning over themselves to Phil Spector on End of The Century. At its core, rock 'n' roll is an experiment on its own meant to challenge preconceptions, and the lion's share of great rock 'n' roll, no matter how different it sounded from its predecessor, builds and grows with experimenting and like many of its listeners know, is always rooted in r&b. Psychedelic music always pushes it a step further with introducing sounds and tempos that are either melodic or in the least, discordant. For example, one might not think a song like "Mother Nature" rocks since it's a downtempo, guitar echo and piano melody, but it's strikingly similar to Codeine by '60s notables The Charlatans(NOT the '80s band The Charlatans UK). The lament Put My Troubles To Sleep is a perfect break up song that you'd listen to at that stage of almost acceptance after a breakup with it's memorable "There ain't no rhyme, there ain't no reason, why are are free and I am freezing." With most good albums, there's always a surprise just to get one off guard. The upbeat Your Reverie provides that with a departure from the less amplified approach from the other tracks, but also introduces a clever nod to XTC's super psychedelic alter ego The Dukes of the Stratosphear with the line "My love explodes all over the world for you" and a melody that's somewhat similar. Another strong track is "Something More" with it's deeper sound and piano emphasis, but it still feels rooted in The British Invasion.

Kelley Stoltz is not a loud rocker. Instead, Circular Sounds takes that basic approach we all consider so important in great rock 'n' roll that gives its thanks to The Kinks and at times, The Faces, but gives the multi-instrumental psychedelic feel of Love or the earlier rock experimentation of The Byrds before their Rickenbacker days, but is combined with the spirit of the psychedelic era in adding different sounds that are mostly harmonic, but occasionally quirky or a little weird. But Circular Sounds also takes a great, purist approach and over all sound that makes the songs not only sound good, but also makes them blend into a whole album that sounds very cohesive and organic. In other words, the music feels like a whole album with some songs standing out more than others, but overall, they all blend together. Kelley Stoltz and his fourth album Circular Sounds is not for everyone since it's not very electric, but if one takes the aural leap into experimenting like so many great rock 'n' rollers that they admire, there's great substance in it, but like a lot of great work out there, a good percentage of it is not instantly likable. Circular Sounds is not catchy; no yeah yeahs, let's go! howls, but basic blues rock with a lot of depth and thoughtful approaches that share similarities to more influential and well known rock 'n' roll albums. Like those great releases, Circular Sounds will grow on a lot of you.

Circular Sounds was hard to review but not because it isn't good. It's very good, in fact. But since it's not loud and its tempo puts it on the fringes of the type of music that is usually reviewed, there was some apprehension about the interest, response or lack of one from those who read them out of shared interest in the louder, more often reviewed "garage" rock. However, like many of those that created the music we love like The Dirtbombs, The Ramones, The Stooges and just about everyone else, great rock 'n' roll is both created and better appreciated by those who step outside of their preconceived notions and see, hear, and experience what's new to them. If nobody did that, we wouldn't have rock 'n' roll, at least we wouldn't have great rock 'n' roll.

Kelley Stoltz also recorded Circular Sounds with renewable energy and the album is Green-e label certified, whic means all the electricity used to make the album was offset by purchasing energy credits, which is something we can hope others consider doing in the future.

Click on the photo to see the photo album from his performance as opening act for The Dirtbombs on March 27th at Emo's in Austin.

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