[2 October 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
San Francisco mid-fi rocker Kelley Stoltz has spent a long time writing solid pop songs that often get dismissed for resting too much on the past. The ‘60s rock vibe of his last album, To Dreamers, or the Brian Wilson nods on Below the Branches, overshadowed what were actually distinct and unique spins on old sounds. Stoltz gleefully bounces from instrument to instrument, making hazy layers of pop bliss, but he never loses sight of his own keening voice.
And, in focusing on his influences – as if he was the first musician to build his sound out of musical history – people often missed the boat with Kelley Stoltz. He’s pressed on, continuing to make records of his own and with acts like Sonny & the Sunsets. Double Exposure, his latest record, is perhaps the best picture yet of Stoltz as a performer and songwriter. It also helps that this is his best batch of songs to date. The hooks are just that much tighter, the fidelity smooth but not too clean. His singing is bittersweet and hazy, and the textures in these tracks are rippling and resonant.
Part of the independence of this record may come from circumstance. For one, he’s no longer with Sub Pop after three records, and is now on the distinctly artist-minded Third Man. Secondly, he’s built his own studio in, yes, his garage. And, on top of all that, in the three years since To Dreamers the every youthful sounding Stoltz turned 40.
This may all seem like straight-up bio sheet stuff, unrelated to the music, but Double Exposure is very much about taking stock, about what independence means, and about how to bridge the gap between the life in your head and the life in the landscape around you. “I’ve got some storms I’m going through,” he belts out on jangly opener “Storms”. He worries about going “through life alone,” but this isn’t lonesome pining necessarily, it’s more an exploration of memory. He sings of numbers written on hands and the rain that might wash them away. “Remember how I sang of a thousand rainy days,” he sings, both nodding to the thing we might remember him for and recognizing the futility of it, the temporary nature of all memory. Still, this isn’t resigned so much as it is pressing forward, to the next memory, to the one after the storm, whether it sticks or not.
What keeps this from bogging down in woe-is-me isolation is that Stoltz is constantly in search on Double Exposure. On lean rocker “Are You My Love” he claims, “I’ve been holding the door” and wonders if the right person will come by. The echoed “Around Your Face” has him waiting for a light, even as that face in the title “tried to spit [him] out.” Later in the record, the acoustic sweetness of “Marcy” is about the memory of a long-gone love and the spot on the street Stoltz still goes past to find that memory, that feeling, again and again. Even the absurdly titled “Kim Chee Taco Man” makes the titular figure a kind of marker of time, a thing that will come back around again. Throughout the record, we have repeated instances like this – returns, revolutions, nostalgia like a skipping record – but each return, for Stoltz, offers a chance to see it new, to reassess, maybe to leave it behind and move forward, maybe to hold out for that next go ‘round.
The crux of the tension here is covered in the album’s epic and excellent middle. The nine-minute “Inside My Head” is Stoltz at his most exciting and experimental. The song starts by worrying over being too locked in on your own thoughts, too closed off to the outside world. And the track around it, all throbbing keys and jagged guitars and countless other flourishes over a steady beat, starts off mimicking that kind of echo chamber. But as the song continues, that recoiling echo opens up, reaches out, and all of sudden we’ve shifted to the possibility of thought, to the moment where the wall between mind and outside world breaks down. It’s both a striking hinge in the record and beautiful stand-alone moment in Stoltz’s career. It combines nicely with the equally great “Still Feel”, which finds everyone around Stoltz moving away while he continues to mine his hometown for inspiration, or even definition, though he’s clad in “hand me downs.”
This notion of travelling without going anywhere, or progress without the appearance of progression is what drives Double Exposure and what makes it so lasting. Kelley Stoltz has not changed his approach here, necessarily, he is as he ever was as an artist. And yet this go ‘round is more fruitful, more revealing, more himself than its predecessors. Which is not to say those weren’t distinct, but Double Exposure is the sound of Kelley Stoltz growing that much more comfortable in his own skin. The album is a moment – an endlessly tuneful one, full of catchy songs – but like any moment it’s informed by what came before, by what might come next. Stoltz looks both ways here. And if you’re just catching up to what he is doing, you might do the same.