Below the Branches
elley Stoltz's press bio reads like your average itinerant troubadour's—suburban upbringing, with subsequent muse-following relocations to New York and San Francisco—but contains one interesting little music-biz factoid: he once worked as Jeff Buckley's intern, reading and answering the young man's fan mail. It isn't the fact that a relative cult figure like Buckley had an intern of his very own that's remarkable (hey, who doesn't?), but the fact of the job description itself that seems rather poignant in light of Below the Branches. Given how Buckley's biggest fans, even during his short time on this planet, have a tendency to speak of him in religious terms—angels and heaven and so on—basking for days on end in everyone's love for someone else must have been crazy-making or even infuriating for a fellow musician to go through.
Except that Stoltz may be of the disposition that wouldn't mind it so much. It isn't that Stoltz sounds like fils Buckley in the least (he couldn't even if he wanted to), but fan-mail-style love for his favorite artists is impasto-stroked all over this, his third album, which immediately follows a full-album cover of Echo and the Bunnymen's Crocodiles. Depending on how you look at it, he's either moved forward or backward in time now: Brian Wilson, George Harrison, the Zombies, Monks, and the Chocolate Watch Band; if those signposts don't scream “NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL” or “OLIVIA TREMOR CONTROL” at you, then, shit, I must be getting old. He's a one-man-band, in his own home studio, and his undiluted vision is essentially a mash note to the early days of psych-folk and cuddle-rock.
It's not such a bad thing really. He leads off with a little bit of Zombies and a little bit of Pogues (in the meandering piano) on opener “Wave Goodbye,” which swings sweetly and a little restlessly into and out of creeping amp fuzz and unevenly-spaced solos. He sings his “find your bliss” lyric in a raspy warble redolent of a certain Anne Frank aficionado, and leads off with a multi-tracked electronics edit that resembles an orchestra tuning up; the whimsy is palpable, but handled gently and with an infectious exuberance. “Ever Thought of Coming Back” is the requisite Beach Boys number, this being, at heart, an escapist pop record grown from certain never-named hardships, in which Jesus is beseeched—“What you been doing all this time?”—and which ends on a buzzed-up bit of bombast reminiscent of the pointier bits of Smile. George Harrison gets a look in—him being the patron saint of Elephant 6 and their fellow travelers—on “Birdies Singing,” all shaking tambourines and gently weeping guitar and, well, chirping birds. And. OK fine, John gets a track too, with megaphone vox, stomping drums, and tape noises, and a little bit of genuine darkness.
I realize that's sounding perhaps overly negative; this is far from an unpleasant experience, and Stoltz's musicianship and songwriting are engaging and technically inspired while remaining loose and comfortable. It's just there are too many obvious references. But then we get to “Summer's Easy Feeling” toward the record's low-key middle, lilting in gently on a harpsichord and slide guitar until the garage drums come crashing in and form an oddly pulsing groove; and then at a little after the two-minute mark, just when it's about to fire off its boosters, Stoltz just fades it out. Listening back, there are all kinds of wonderfully, excitingly odd details just buried all the way back in the mix, or ended prematurely: The flaming-hot guitar solo (or it would be) at the end of the otherwise Bill Doss-y “Little Lords,” or “Mystery”'s never truly fleshed out glockenspiel and cello duet. It strikes me that the problem here isn't a lack of ideas, and certainly no dearth of talent, just a simple failure of nerve, as if he can't be confident with his own ideas unless they've been filtered through the music—other people's music—that he obviously cares for very deeply. There's a great, deliriously strange album in him somewhere; let's hope he gets up the courage to drop his influences like the dead weight they are.