In America’s mad, list-crazy rush to name the greatest invention of the Millennium, nobody mentioned the home 4-track recorder. It’s not too surprising, really; faced with the more immediate benefits of the printing press, the automobile and the meat dehydrator, a battered old Fostex pales to insignificance. But as far as the last 25 years of musical evolution are concerned, the availability of inexpensive multi-track recorders is a metaphorical opposable thumb.
The Past Was Faster supports this assertion perfectly. It’s Stoltz’s first album, the product of more than five years of songwriting and bedroom recording experiments. Though the original tapes were given a slight polish (and a few extra bass lines) by producer Monte Vallier (Swell), the album retains the warmth, intimacy and spirit of a home recording.
It’s obvious that Stoltz bought plenty of records in the ’80s. “X-Ray Eyes” features a driving rhythm and jangly melody that’ll hook anyone who ever enjoyed a Mighty Lemon Drops song, and “Cardinal Body” recalls the Chills with its complex, xylophone-enhanced tune and simple, repetitive lyrics. There’s a little bit of Flaming Lips lurking in the shy psychedelia of “The Captain,” and elements of early New Order, Wire and Galaxie 500 in “Emerald Stew” and “Peppermint”. And throughout, admitted Bunnymen fan Stoltz turns in credibly robust, McCullochy vocals, pausing for a confident strut through Waits country on “The Fog has Lifted”. But don’t misunderstand — though it’s easy to spot Stoltz’s influences, he doesn’t indulge in wholesale stylistic pillaging. Tiny, recognizable elements peek out, like a familiar image in the midst of a collage, drawing you further into a more intimate relationship with the whole.
There are elements that won’t work for everyone. Stoltz’s lyrics favor rhythmically effective phrases over narrative storytelling, and are occasionally rather clumsy; if you’re looking for universal truths or literary wonders, look elsewhere. More annoyingly, a couple of solid songs are stashed in “hidden track” turf, and they receive a poor lead-in from the somnolent “Lonely Star State”.
If you think these are minor quibbles, you’re right. The Past Was Faster is a triumph of home recording, and it deserves an adoring audience who’ll embrace it, flaws and all. It’s a good enough advertisement for D.I.Y. creativity that next time you go down to the appliance store to buy a printing press or an air conditioner, you might catch yourself considering a 4-track instead.