Below the Branches – Kelley Stoltz
Sub Pop 674
The first thing which caught my attention about Kelley Stoltz's Below the Branches was not the retro, LP styled layout. Nor did I become piqued upon seeing John Hofer’s name, drummer from the Mother Hips, like I’m some teenage, Tiger Beat groupie douche bag.
Close, but not quite.
It was when Stoltz sang "Jesus Christ, what you been doing all this time?" For starters, when Stoltz hit "what you been doing," he went up harmonically, moving through a falsetto eerily like Brian Wilson's; if not an exact copy. With Stoltz singing, a piano is vamping in a major chord, chopping in unison with the drums, moving through "Ever Thought of Coming Back" in a way like "Heroes and Villains."
But, some how, I didn't think of "God Only Knows," at least immediately. Instead, much to my chagrin, I thought of Wilco's "Jesus etc.," where Jeff Tweedy played with the notion of Christ and profanity in one fell swoop. It twisted the song, contorted the lyrics, rendering readings which depended on the depth of satire you wanted to uncover.
Some of which was dictated and tempered by the albums release date. I remember Yankee Hotel Foxtrot receiving unnamed panegyrics as a post 9/11 soundtrack; as if Tweedy and crew were reflecting the American landscape and demeanor; despite the anachronistic means necessary for believing such a fable (it was recorded long before). By the time the listener reached "Jesus, don’t cry, you can rely on me honey," we all believed that we could rely on Tweedy; that he could put words to our thoughts and lead us out of music’s mired muck.
All despite the lame Willy Wonka samples and insouciant rock star status he would latter clothe himself in.
By comparison, the current landscape of political events shows turmoil and uncertainty, stupidity and ineptitude. Who did what and who started what has been made unclear, masked by political science studs desiring to render and state anything deviating from their own opinions. Subjectivity and personal interest have become their fog machine for general, cultural understanding of truly simplistic ideological discourses. Years of foreign policy has been thrown out of the window, the papers strewn all over a country back street. Sadly, someone will use it as toilet paper, covering up the ideological complexities Henry Kissinger spent years detailing, replaced by memos about — as Bush put it — "the land looking no bigger than a Texas driveway."
So when Stoltz asked the question, to use my words, "JC, where the fuck are you?" I nodded my head. However the proverbial chubby inducing rub, unlike Tweedy, happens when Stoltz adds a brilliant pause between Jesus Christ and the rest of the question. Something I hadn't noticed at first. His pause lets us fall, lets us realize it is an academic appositive. This is a break from the scheduled programming, from the next bombing, the next image of a displaced family. Entirely appropriate. Our world, captured and separated by a iridescent screen, can be gestated by the flip of a station. The better question isn't whether or not JC will be making his Elvis inspired appearance, with a hip-shake, but that Elvis will show up crooning about his Teddy bear.
Which firmly places Stoltz's song next to "God Only Knows," where the track is about wanting love back; viewed with a Song of Solomon reverence. But it claims the roost sonically as well. Stoltz's DIY production, on par with Richard Swift's The Novelist, just sounds so damn good, so damn comforting. It has just enough vocal reverb to approximate an antiquated LA sound chamber. The mics he uses were probably picked up at a thrift store, and the recording sounds the better for it, making the piano sound like it is being played on the beach, with Brian Wilson shuffling his feet in the sand; which offers a pleasantness to this discussion of lost love. It merely feels sunny.
Somewhat like the Beach Boys and the label "summer album" there is a guilty pleasure to Stoltz's release. The sand, the sun, the cute word play, reminds me of a purple polka dot bikini. As if the album came from somewhere else, from another time or planet, just to sate my current worried mind. Filled with songs of love and loss, they are almost childlike, dreamy. The acoustic guitar strains of "Words" and "Mystery," both of which are Lennon heading Muswell Hillbillies Kinks, are so startlingly innocent. Stoltz voice cracks, breaks under the penetrating simplicity, coming out of the digital speakers to comfort me in analog.
Which means none of this album is entirely original. Warren Zanes did this. The High Llamas did this. Stephen Malkmus did this. The Flaming Lips tried to do this. Same for Convoy. "Memory Collector" is a great track, but I have a feeling Stoltz won't receive the praise he deserves because, well, it can be labeled as a knockoff. Perfectly rendered, but a knockoff nonetheless. Things which fully capture and encapsulate the past, like the way Ryan Adams, Nic Armstrong, or Richard Swift have done, gets shuffled aside. They are viewed as side show attractions, even charlatans.
So God Bless Kelly Stoltz for giving me a diversion, for something calling back to a time where soda fountains were littered with Kafka novels. Because I can name a million artists who mention "influences," but none I have heard, including Adams, can pull off almost a Loving Spoonful/Beatles thing like "Birdies Singing" or the Sgt. Pepper vibe of "The Sun Comes Through" like Stoltz does. Not to mention without a welter of studio gadgetry to get it done. I think the world is better for it, even if it does remind me of musty thrift store vinyl bins.