Kelley Stoltz is a great talent. Armed with only himself and a home studio, Stoltz makes records that exude the energy of a child allowed to stay up late while the parents are out—there’s mischief, glee, and a hint of determined sincerity mixed up in there. 2004 saw the wide release of his much-lauded sophomore effort, Antique Glow, in the UK first and later that year in the USA. Hearing Antique Glow was like unwrapping a present that you’ve already requested. You know what it is, but that doesn’t lessen the excitement of actually getting it. Stoltz managed to sound like someone who had swallowed the best moments of ‘60s and ‘70s pop and spit them back out as something shiny and new. He circumvented dull, warmed-over nostalgia, though, and with the finesse of a true artist. He sounded fresh and he sounded passionate. Fans everywhere have been eagerly awaiting the follow-up.
And so Below the Branches is finally here. A year and a half after Antique Glow‘s release, and almost five years since that second record was completed, Stoltz gives us his third swing (not counting EPs and one full-length tribute to Echo & the Bunnymen’s Crocodiles). The verdict? It’s not bad, and it’s not great. What it is, however, is Antique Glow Part II. And that is a shame.
That’s not to say there isn’t an audience for this. If there is a choice to be made between the two, either one will do. There’s no harm in owning both. Kelley Stoltz very much remains a great talent. It’s just that he hasn’t flexed the full muscle yet. What made the last record so charming are the same things that Below the Branches offers: pop craftsmanship that allows for sloppy edges, an overabundant love for the Beatles and Beach Boys, a voice that sounds just-warmed by scotch and cigarettes, and the ability to add subtle depth in the background of the music. Speaking of the Beatles, Kelley Stoltz is the first artist to my knowledge to manage to capture the solo careers of Paul, John, and George all in one song. “Wave Goodbye”, the opener on Below the Branches, takes Paul’s penchant for restrained weirdness, John’s love for a sustained, almost boring, backbeat to highlight the lyrics, and then mixes it with George’s musical expertise, handling guitar lines with a fluidity that makes many others sound amateurish. Beatles references are boring in this day and age, but with Kelley Stoltz, there’s no denying it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; he does ‘em good and never panders, correctly confident in his own voice.
Beyond the pristine retro vibe floating off of Below the Branches, it is nigh impossible to get around the mostly feel-good lyrics. The great thing is, Stoltz is not just deft, but rather profoundly gifted at them, adding just the right vocal touch to avoid coming across as merely fey. There’s nothing here to roll your eyes at. He sounds like a man who’s decided to not be such a cynic all the time and is passing along his attitude. “Ain’t no world like the world we got here / Ain’t no place I’d rather go”, he sings on the record’s closer (“No World Like the World”), and by the time you’ve taken the whole trip with him, you really couldn’t agree more.
If only, if only. Stoltz’s press release claims he had to choose from a multitude of songs to put together Below the Branches. Taking this as truth, I can only suggest that he slow it down. Take the time, make the masterpiece that is imminent. In the meantime, I’ll wait, content with the all the fine pop songs Stoltz has created up to this point. He hasn’t missed on a song yet. It’s the recognition of a genius whole trapped inside of him that, for now, leaves me longing for more.