Music

Kelley Stoltz: Circular Sounds

Justin Cober-Lake

Stoltz cures hangovers with the sounds you haven't forgotten.


Kelley Stoltz

Circular Sounds

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2008-02-04
UK Release Date: 2008-02-04
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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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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