I’ve decided to accept the decidedly fact-based idea that you can learn a lot about an artist by the packaging that his CD comes in. Kelley Stoltz’s last album, Below the Branches was a fantastic if overlooked jewel, so I thought maybe he’d have something sparkly and expensive for new release Circular Sounds. It was a reasonable assumption, but no, the album comes in some sort of environmentally-friendly thing with the disc in one of those little paper sleeves that you can never quite get back in the case, and you end up smashing the single-sheet insert.
It must be the retro thing. You know, like the paper that vinyl comes in that you can’t figure out if you’re supposed to pull out with the record or not. And the environmental stuff is current news, but also not the first time it’s come around. This is like Stoltz, who lifts his sound from about 40 years ago in the UK, some late Beatles, some Kinks, etc. Or maybe not lifts, because that would be a discredit to what he’s doing. Let’s just say he doesn’t hide his influences, nor should he.
Stoltz always masters beautiful melodies and never-cheesy emotion, but he opens this album with a surprise. The mild dissonance of “Everything Begins” falls somewhere in between careful composition for startling effect and simply having horns out of tune. Probably both, because my ears can’t quite align the grating pitches in either direction. Unfortunately, the opening notes of the album mark Stoltz’s worse mistake. He wouldn’t need to be pleasing here (especially if he’s dodging the expectations of Branches fans), but he doesn’t scratch the chalkboard enough to actually make the fuss worth it. Instead, it simply sounds amateurish, which this home-recorder rarely does.
Starting off in the pits might be a wise move, though, because then, of course, it can only get better, which Circular Sounds does. “Gardenia” plants the first really good song on the disc. It’s a soft little number that hinges on falling in love, and I can see the nervous-but-pretty teen boy peeking at his new raison de voir through green stalks. I’m not sure if gardenias have green stalks, so that might be a misleading description. The next track starts with a line about “the rose that grows on the garden gate,” so I consider that good sequencing even if it’s not a brilliant song.
“To Speak to the Girl” gets to the need-to-hide behind vegetation. Even more than the lyrics about anxiety and doubt, its swirling Brit-honk captures the always half-psychedelic experience of crossing a room towards a pretty face and reminds me of the time at an art show I talked really smoothly and then simply forgot to ask for her number. This track would go well with the not very dry red that the gallery was handing out, too.
Regrets I’ve quit regretting aside, Circular Sounds provides brightness in its orbit. With fittingly retro production, the music lifts, and lines like, “You’ve got to find out all over again / When you forget” are as happifying as they are straightforward. It doesn’t have to be profound, you know? It’s just great pop. Not that Stoltz is all vapid uplift. “I Nearly Lost My Mind” isn’t about the insanity of pure joy. Just a sitar short of failure, the song stays level in losing it.
The album winds down from there, with hangovers and hope, proffered both through lyrical content and musical establishment (especially “Reflecting”). Stoltz knows that sometimes the best way through anything, from hangovers to hopelessness, requires just good pop, a steady beat and the sound that everything’s okay. That’s what he does very well, and if you rip that paper sleeve for the third time, just spin the disc again and don’t worry about it.