Dear Sub Pop Records: Please put out a Fun with Kelley Stoltz On Stage album. I’m not kidding. Digital-only would be fine. I love Stoltz’s music, but the dude is seriously hilarious. He had everyone at Union Hall on Friday in stitches the whole time. Anecdotes, accents, one-liners…Stoltz is a master of them all. He would also make a good Color Commentator for baseball games, or some other role on television.
Of course he’s a great songwriter and performer too. To Dreamers is Stoltz’ fifth album (not counting Crokodials, the front-to-back redo of the first Bunnymen LP), and third for Sub Pop, and is his most polished collection of ’60s influenced pop yet. Mind you when I say “polished” we’re talking about a devout home taper, who works exclusively in analog. But the new album is full-on mid-fi, probably using a lot of the same equipment his heroes considered to be high fidelity back in the day.
Stoltz told some good stories about the new album. “Pinecone,” which has an undeniable Fred Neil/Harry Nilsson vibe to it, came from him trying to bring back the titular item from New Zealand and getting stopped at Customs. For “Fire Escape” he talked about an old apartment that had a wooden fire escape that the landlord liked to store old cardboard boxes underneath. It didn’t end well, though the story was hilarious. “This song, is about happier fire escape memories.”
Good spirits all around thanks in part to the unique nature of this tour. Kelley is currently on the road with fellow Bay Area band Sonny & the Sunsets who doubled as Kelley’s backing band. And when Sonny played, Kelley was on drums. (He’s a good drummer, chalk up another skill.) You need a lot of camaraderie when everyone is doing double duty. Sonny and Kelley joked a lot on stage, the former more of a straight man to the latter’s setups and punchlines.
As to the music, both were pretty solid. I was a little disappointed with Stoltz’s setlist. We didn’t get “To Speak to the Girl” (my favorite off Circular Sounds) or the current single “I Don’t Get That,” which they eschewed in favor of that jam the incorporates both Lou Rawls “Groovy People” and Pharaoh Sanders’ “The Creator’s Got a Master Plan” which I’d seen him do before. But “Pinecone” was awesome, as was “Do You Want to Rock and Roll With Me” and “I Remember You Were Wild” and TV commercial favorite “Birdies Singing.” His voice is dropping, octave-wise, sounding more and more like TSOOL’s Ebbot Lundberg.
I was a little disappointed with Sonny & the Sunsets’ set. The album is very minimal, yet nuanced. Live they are much more a rock band and I missed the little production and arrangement touches that grace Tomorrow is Alright. I think if I hadn’t been wanting to hear the record reproduced live, I woulda liked it more. The band was tight enough, it just wasn’t the Sunsets I was expecting.
It was however a treat to hear Stoltz on the drumkit, to which he excels at. During his own set when he was praising The Sunsets and, especially, their drummer… well, we get it now. Somebody get this guy a TV show. Rimshot!
Trying to figure out where Kelley Stoltz is going to be playing on April 9 has been a bit of a puzzle, even if it was one only I was trying to solve… or wanted to. He’s on tour with the Dirtbombs (they play Bowery on April 9) but had an off night and was going to use it to play a smaller venue. For a month or so, Stoltz had the date on his MySpace as being at Mercury Lounge. Which would put him with Jason Collette — a nice double bill. But Mercury’s website never had him listed. Or anyone for the early show. I actually asked Kelley at SXSW what the deal was and he insisted he was playing there.
But then the Mercury website finally listed an opener for Collette, and it was Robert Gomez (signed to Bella Union which makes me interested now). Then Kelley Stoltz’ Myspace listed an April 9 date at Union Pool, which would be a great place to see him, a very cool room for his awesome brand of retro-ish pop. (Bonus… really near my apartment.) But Union Pool never listed it on their site. I emailed them about it yesterday, no response… but a visit to Stoltz’ Myspace today saw that the venue was now Union Hall. And a visit to UH’s site confirmed it.
Aren’t you glad I wasted two paragraphs leading up to something I gave away in this post’s title. Just a peak into my thought process.
Union Hall makes as much sense as Union Pool, maybe more so. Tickets are ONLY $5ONLY $10 and it’s a late show: doors are at 10:30. (Melissa Ferrick plays earlier.) And it’s billed as "An Evening with Kelley Stoltz" so maybe we’ll get a longer than usual show, with some nuggets off Antique Glowperhaps? He probably won’t do it, but I’ve always been partial to "Mean Marianne":
Back before the Day Party became the norm, SXSW attendees were forced to either sleep till a civilized hour, go enjoy a relaxing, delicious lunch somewhere in Austin other than near the convention center or, heaven forbid, attend a Panel Discussion. I know what you're thinking. Panel Discussion, what's that? It's where a handful of people in the industry get free food and are then put in front of an audience of their peers to talk about a particular topic like "Merch Table of Contents," "Fans are Suckers," or "I'm OK, You're OK: The Industry's Still Rockin'!"
Despite what the Fader Fort and the Filter Courtyard might have you believe, these panel discussions are still going on at SXSW and people still attend them. Probably as many people as before the day parties. And they're just as dull as they used to be.* I know, I went to one: "The Blog Factor." On the panel were Amrit of Stereogum, Idolator editor Maura Johnston, Matador major domo Gerard Cosloy, Sean Adams of Drowned in Sound, NPR blogger and onetime Sleater Kinney vocalist Carrie Brownstein.
What could have been a potentially interesting discussion about music blogs — Gerard Cosloy talked briefly about using the extremely unfriendly Web Sheriff to do their dirty work for them –got hijacked by a lot of marketing types in the audience who asked a bunch of questions that all amounted to "So, if I sent you an MP3 what kind of subject line would work best for you to open it?" I did however use the opportunity afterwards to ask Cosloy when the Matablog was going to fully convert to all food content. (It's almost there as it is.)
After that, I headed over to the Village Voice day party, arriving just in time for the last Black Keys song. If someone had told me it was the Black Crowes I woulda believed it. I was there to see Sweden's neo-classic rockers The Soundtrack of Our Lives who played a set almost entirely comprised of new material from their yet-to-be-released fifth album. Skilled musicians and masters of all the great rock moves (windmills, kicks, stick twirls, etc), TSOOL are always good live but the band's material has suffered with the departure of main songwriter Bjorn Olsson shortly after their 2001 breakthrough, Behind the Music. The new stuff wasn't bad, but paled in comparison when the band launched into the stellar "Sister Surround." MP3: The Soundtrack of Our Lives – Sister Surround
From there I headed over to the Fader Fort to catch the debut of UK-Swede combo Fanfarlo (who I've yammered on about before) who have surprisingly little US buzz despite the David Bowie stamp of approval. A lot of these day parties blur the lines as to whether you're attending a show or a commercial, but there's no subtle marketing at the Fader Fort: to get into space you literally have to walk through a Levi's Store specially built just for this. This is what we do for free Stella and SoCo-n-Lime and an excellent lineup of music daily in an admittedly cool space. Fanfarlo are fan-tastic, performing shoeless in the 90-plus degree Friday heat. Again, I've no idea why more people aren't talking about them. Catchy songs that remind me of Belle & Sebastian, though I've read more comparisons to Arcade Fire (they're nowhere near as anthemic). Maybe it's because they're slow to release their debut, trickling out singles instead, like the wonderful "Fire Escape" of which I shot some video:
Did I mention how hot it was Friday? I compared it to friends back in New York as if the McCarren Pool parties in July took over an entire town. Pretty sure it hit 95. Energy-sucking heat. I headed back to the hotel for a while to cool off, sneak in a nap and shower.
The order of things is a bit confused in my head but at some point in the evening I went to some cheesy subterranean club called Prague (that probably only has music during SXSW) to see Fuck Buttons. Two guys, one with a hoodie pulled over his head, were hunched over either end of a long work table filled with makeshift gear, toy microphones, patch bays, etc. The first ten minutes or so were somewhat torturous, about as exciting as watching two dudes work on home electronics kits as a voluminous nonmelodic sludge was sprayed at the crowd from the soundsystem. But then the bearded one picked up drumsticks and began whacking at a floor tom while screaming words into the toy microphone shoved into his mouth, while the hoodied guy jumped into the crowd and began spastically dancing and screaming into a real mike. Fuck Buttons' album, Street Horrrsing, isn't really my cup of tea, but I'd go see them live again. They're currently on tour with Caribou — a double bill that's highly recommended. As are earplugs.
Most of Friday night was spent at the Sub Pop showcase at Bourbon Rocks: two stages, ten or so bands and most of them were good though it started off a bit shaky with New Zealand's Ruby Suns. I actually really like their new album, Sea Lion, but the many-membered band were only three or four strong here and were forced to trade off onto instruments they don't normally play (from what I could tell). The witch doctor hippie stagewear didn't help either. A disappointment. Much better were Seattle's Grand Archives who traffic in late-'60s / early-'70s rock and do it very well. Highlight of the set for me, though, was a medley of covers comprised of the Beegees' "I Started a Joke," the Zombies' "Care of Cell 44" and Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown."
In a similar vein was Kelley Stoltz, though maybe slightly different reference points. I'm a big fan of his, so take this with a grain of salt, but his set was tied with Fanfarlo for best of the fest. Stoltz is a real charmer, very funny and knows how to tell a good story in between songs. His backing band is pretty ace — including one of the coolest cats you've ever seen on bass, and a keyboardist who also rocked the theremin. Most of the set came from his great new album, Circular Sounds, but also "Birdies Singing" from 2005's Between the Branches which you might know from a Volvo commercial. I shot video of my favorite song from Circular Sounds, "To Speak to the Girl":
Sixties Night continued with Fleet Foxes whose impeccable four-part harmonies wowed just about everybody in the room. They were probably one of the most buzzed-about bands of SXSW. Outside, were some of Sub Pop's more raucous acts: Pissed Jeans and No Age, the later of whom provided my favorite quote of the trip.
To cap the night I headed down the street to see indie legends My Dad is Dead. Main (sole) member Mark Edwards has been doing MDID since the mid-80s and their excellent 1989 album The Taller You Are, The Shorter You Get (among others) does what Interpol made commercially viable, except he did it 14 years too early. (They're all available to download for free from the MDID website.) I had no idea, before SXSW, that Edwards was still performing under the name so it was kind of a thrill, as much as I liked his records back in the day. The current lineup is a trio, with Edwards on guitar and a tight rhythm section backing him. His setlist was mostly foreign to me, but they didn't really seem too sonically worse for wear. One of the monitors did start smoking three songs in…they've still got heat.
Kelley Stoltz‘s records remind me of my grandmother’s house. There’s warm light hitting the best corners, mismatched furniture everywhere and a oddly comforting musty smell is unavoidable It just feels right.
That comforting feel is what really appeals to me about Stoltz. It probably comes from working in a used record store, the kind of place where all you do all day is sort through and listen to old vinyl. Last time I saw him perform he was dropping references to Ken Nordine and Pharoah Sanders. He sounds like an old soul too, despite being a mere 37. And his albums are made on an 8-track reel-to-reel in his San Francisco home so they’ve got that already-worn-in feel to them. The title to his second album probably sums up things the best: Antique Glow.
Stoltz’s fourth album, Circular Sounds, is out today on Sub Pop. It’s hi-fi compared to his three previous releases (but probably only compared to them) and a return to guitars after the generally piano-based Below the Branches. But it’s pure Kelley Stoltz. The first single, "Your Reverie," owes more than a little to "My Love Explodes" by XTC psychedelic pseudonym The Dukes of Stratosphear, which in turn owed a lot to the Count Five’s "Psychotic Reaction." He makes no bones about this and has always worn his influences like a great big hug.
You could go though Circular Sounds song by song and pick apart the references but that is beside the point and takes away from the magic a bit. I say just dig it, man… from the lopey beat and "bah bah bahs" of "Putting My Troubles to Sleep" to the mellow, harmony-driven vibe of "Gardenia" to the Love-ly "Morning Sun." My favorite, though, is "To Speak to the Girl" whose off-kilter beat reminds me a bit of the Monks by way of the Kinks. So much for not picking apart the references. It’s what I do.
Kelley Stoltz’ Circular Sounds is out now, so buy it, won’t you? He’ll also be on tour in March and April, opening for garage punks the Dirtbombs. I wish he was doing club dates on his own, but sometimes you gotta take what you can get:
Mar 21 Bloomington, IN Jake’s
Mar 22 Nashville, TN Mercy Lounge
Mar 24 Memphis, TN HI-Tone
Mar 25 Little Rock, AR Revolution Music Room
Mar 26 Dallas, TX House of Blues
Mar 27 Austin, TX Emo’s
Mar 28 Houston, TX Rudyard’s
Mar 29 New Orleans, LA One Eyed Jack’s
Mar 31 Ashville, NC Orange Peel
Apr 1 Birmingham, AL Bottletree
Apr 2 Atlanta, GA the Earl
Apr 3 Chapel Hill, NC Local 506
Apr 4 Baltimore, MD Sonar
Apr 5 Washington DC, Rock N Roll Hotel
Apr 6 Hoboken, NJ Maxwell’s
Apr 8 New Haven, CT Cafe 9
Apr 10 Philadelphia, PA Johnny Brenda’s
Apr 11 New York, NY Bowery Ballroom
Apr 12 Cambridge, MA Middle East
Apr 13 Montreal, CN Cabaret Music Hall
Apr 15 Ottawa, CN Babylon
Apr 16 Toronto, CN Horseshoe
Apr 18 Toledo, OH Frankie’s
Apr 19 Ann Arbor, MI Blind Pig
While my Top Ten remained pretty solid, I finagled with the rest of the list right up to this posting. Lots and lots of good music this year, some of it was even great. Brits dominated the list this year (I am an Anglophile for sure) with the USA, Canada, Sweden, Denmark and, in a shocker, Australia rounding things out. If you disagree with my choices, I offer this quote from Yukon Cornelius: "You eat what you like, and I’ll eat what I like!" (MP3s are expired, sorry)
Hot Chip – The Warning (DFA/Astralwerks) | Overflowing with ideas, melody and humor, The Warning had it all: killer singles (“Over and Over,” “Boy from School,”), slow jams (the affecting “Look After Me”) and whiteboy funk (“Arrest Yourself”). Hot Chip are like a modern day New Order, and they do it without imitating Peter Hook’s bass style. It’s the sound of real live people playing – not programming – sythesizers, and that human element shines through.
Sloan – Never Hear the End of It (Murderecords) | Canada’s indie elder statesman return after a few years of trying to grab the brass ring and go back to doing what they do best – being themselves. The result is their best album in years; a sprawling, beautiful mess of 30 interwoven songs that never gets boring. Though you never really went away, Sloan, it’s good to have you back.
Midlake – The Trials of Van Occupanther (Bella Union) | Yes, Midlake’s songs are often soft. But they’re not soft rock. Michael McDonald never sounded like this… or sang about 19th Century agrarian society. Bookish and beautiful, The Trials of Van Occupanther is a perfect album for Sunday mornings, drives through lush countrysides or doing research for that second doctorate.
Figurines – Skeleton (Control Group) | Denmark’s Figurines sound like a Best of ’90s Indie Rock compilation all rolled into one band. A little Pavement, some Modest Mouse, with liberal splashes of Teen Beat and Flying Nun thrown in for good measure. More than anything else, Skeleton is loaded with fantastic songs. Great Danes indeed.
Kelley Stoltz – Below the Branches (Sub Pop) | Here’s a record that took nearly six months to work its magic on me, but has now burrowed deep under my skin and refuses to leave. Below the Branches has a real timeless quality about it, and it’s not just the songwriting. It’s not retro, yet it sounds like it could’ve been recorded any time over the last three decades. Kelley Stoltz is also a real charmer in person — don’t miss a chance to see him play.
The Knife – Silent Shout (Mute) | Certainly one of the most hyped records of the year, Silent Shout deserved it’s accolades. The Knife‘s music is like one of those sea creatures that lives in the deepest waters: spooky, phospherescent, undulating, mesmerizing. And you can dance to it. Yet for me, this is a perfect record to listen to while walking around the city at night.
Phoenix – It’s Never Been Like That (Astralwerks) | Phoenix started as slick dance-pop and have been devolving their sound ever since. Though we know they are skilled musicians, Phoenix pull off the sloppy, Strokesy rock with much elan. This is just one of those records that just sounds great, and their songs are catchy as ever. One of the most fun albums of the year.
8. Luke Haines – Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop (Degenerate) |
Like Mark E. Smith, I don’t think Luke Haines is ever going to run out
of bile. It fed four Auteurs albums, one by Baader Meinoff, three from
Black Box Recorder, and a flurry of solo work here in the last few
years. And all of it is awesome. That being said, I was a bit taken back
by just how awesome Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop is. Always looking on the dark side of life and England, this
time, Haines fixates on Serial killers, aging rock stars,
the art world, and the music biz — all wrapped up in glammy disco (not unlike Denim) and whispered vocals. This is may be one of the best things Haines has ever done. And that is saying something.
The Dears – Gang of Losers (Arts & Crafts) | Montreal’s perpetual underdogs are just starting to get some attention (aka play on Grey’s Anatomy) and it’s about time. After touring their asses off in 2005, gaining the reputation as one of the most firey live bands on the planet, the Dears finally nailed it in the studio. (Playing it mostly live with minimal overdubs helped.) Gang of Losers is the post-apocalyptic romantic pop album of the year. Not that there was much competition.
10. Dirty on Purpose – Hallelujah Sirens (North Street Records) | Maybe it’s that Mercury Lounge seemed to be playing this album before every band I saw there this year, but Hallelujah Sirens is one of my most-listened-to albums of the year. Or maybe it’s just that there is no filler here — every song is great. Dirty on Purpose are friends of mine, but listening to this album, I am a mere fan. Buy It | MP3: Dirty on Purpose – "Light Polution"
I first saw Kelley Stoltz at Arlene’s Grocery during CMJ 2003 as part of Crock-O-Dials, his Echo & the Bunnymen tribute act — also featuring Spiral Stairs on guitar — whose appearances in San Francisco had become legendary. They played Crocodiles in its entirety and nothing else, but went go the whole nine yards: smoke machines, camo outfits, and Stoltz doing a perfect Mac the Mouth impression the whole time. "You may have heard this one on John Peel last night." What a blast. Will Sergeant, who had played with the real E&TB earlier that night at Webster Hall, was in the small crowd to see Crock-O-Dials but he didn’t join them onstage.
Stoltz makes his own records too, which I’m sure he’d rather be known for. Very good ones too. Below the Branches is his third album — and first for Sub Pop — and I’ve become quite enamored with it over the last month. It doesn’t really sound like the Bunnymen; piano is probably the predominant instrument and the production, which seems purposely lo-fi, is varied. If anything, the record sounds like something a mid-’70s singer-songwriter like Randy Newman, Paul McCartney, or even maybe Skip Spence.
Seeing him perform his own songs live at Mercury Lounge on Saturday night, with the constraints of a live band (albeit a good one), some of the Bunnymen-isms crept back in. He obviously spent so much time imitating Ian McCulloch that some of the phrasing stuck; the way he sings the word "reeling," for instance. And just the timbre of his voice puts him in the same vocal range as McCulloch (or Jim Morrison). And some of the guitar playing owes much to Will Sergeant’s stylings. These are not bad things. It’s who he is. And Stoltz put on a fantastic show which pretty much won the whole crowd over. In addition to being a great musician, he is also quite the charmer, raconteur, and comedian.
Flitting between guitar and a Fender Rhodes, Stoltz played for about 45 minutes, mostly songs from Below the Branches. With half the stage taken up by the massive amount of equipment The Mystery Jets had brought, he and his band (a really great drummer and bassist, plus a second guitarist who, at one point, played his instrument with a screwdriver). At one point he conducted the crowd to hum along to the loud electrical hum coming from the PA; at another he did a spot-on impersonation of color-obsessed jazz poet Ken Nordine; another song morphed into Pharoh Sanders’ "The Creator Has a Master Plan" for a good ten minutes before "bringing it home." Actually all three of those things may have happened during the same song. I really should bring a notebook to shows.
I was so impressed with the show that I’m going to go back to Mercury Lounge tonight to go see him. (I also want to check out Abberfeldy who are also playing.) He’s got additional tour dates and you should really go see Kelley if he’s playing near you…
03-27 Mercury Lounge New York City, NY 03-29 Great Scott Allston, MA 03-30 Club Lambi Montreal, QC, Canada 03-31 Drake Hotel Toronto, ON, Canada 04-01 Lager House Detroit, MI 04-03 Schubas Chicago, IL 04-04 400 Bar Minneapolis, MN 04-07 Neumos Seattle, WA 04-08 Doug Fir Lounge Portland, OR
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