“In Triangle Time” Is Another Side Of Kelley Stoltz

By our count, In Triangle Time is Kelley Stoltz’s 7th album, and in the decade we’ve been listening to him, playing his music for all to hear, tuning into shortwave just to make out the distant early warning of new music beaming from his San Francisco atelier, he’s never made a record that was, on the scale between “unworthy” and “classic,” anything less than “remarkable.”  At least 10 of the 12 songs on this first album released by John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees’ Castleface Records tip well to the right on that continuum — radio worthy, enormously tuneful, the product of an amazing band of musicians which, if you’d never heard anything about Kelley before, you wouldn’t realize were all him.

And yet just as Stoltz has produced an album either recorded in a “real” studio, or in surroundings seriously upgraded from when his home recordings had to be made with the microphone wedged into the socks drawer — legend has it that he couldn’t afford a mike stand — the sounds herein constitute a real departure, and it has taken us a bit to reckon with them.

Between 2006 and 2008, on Between The Branches and the magnificent Circular Sounds, Stoltz produced from a home studio music that exhibited the artisanal craftsmanship of a cobbler locked above the John Lobb store, hand stitching leather boots. His many fans loved these albums not just because of the amazing care that went into this harpsichord run, that Rickenbacker riff, the Aynsley Dunbar drum roll.  We loved this music because Kelley could self-harmonize better than Steve Miller on Your Saving Grace, because Powerman-era Ray Davies seemed a songwriting inspiration, because unlike the majority of musicians who have produced albums all by their lonesome — from Skip Spence to Paul McCartney, John Fogerty to Prince and even Ty Segall — Stoltz could play literally any instrument, from drums to piano to guitar, at least as well as any sideman he might have recruited to his Batstudio.  Through the entire run of Kelley Stoltz’s career, these amazing tourbillons he’s produced — songs with complicated wheels spinning in the middle of them — have contained surprises, startling moments.  Listening to a Kelley Stoltz song can be like biting into a chocolate and finding it has a nougat center, no wait, that’s key lime, oh, cherry.

Interestingly, the week before In Triangle Time was released, Stoltz released two items — a sort of grab bag of mostly substandard songs entitled The Scuzzy Inputs Of Willie Weird, but also an EP straightforwardly titled 4 New Cuts.  On the EP, there are at least two songs as good as anything Kelley’s ever done, and importantly, “Redirected” and “Some Things” have that classic, playful Kelley Stoltz sound, every bit as good as the best song on his last full album, 2013’s Double Exposure, which Jack White, like John Dwyer, set forth upon the world with a musician’s generous desire that all appreciate this guy who’s churned out record after record doing everything himself including, likely, pressing the vinyl.

So with evidence that Kelley is producing new music that sounds like his old music — New Cuts (emphasis mine) — what are we to make of his new album?  In Triangle Time shows what to many will seem like an entirely new side of the artist.  It has a big, booming sound, as if he’s moved from a two-track studio to wherever it is the latest Beyonce album was cut.  More than ever before, electric keyboards and bass dominate the instrumentation.  And the sound has shifted paradigms from the fairly delicate late-’60s craftsmanship of his records at the end of the ’00s, to that moment between ’79 and ’83 when synthesizers began to dominate New Wave music, just before it all got ruined by the brittle shift from vinyl to CDs.  In fact, comparing this album to what Kelley’s done previously is not so much like Dylan going electric as like your favorite photographer shifting from film to digital.

It’s ironic, we guess, that in clearly more comfortable surroundings, Kelley’s moved from finding that perfect acoustic piano sound to the seemingly easier pallet of electronic keyboards; you’d think it might be the opposite, right?  But when you consider what he’s doing here, it all makes sense.  If earlier, Stoltz was channeling the Kinks and the Who, here he channels favorites from that transition time between New Wave and the pop music that came after.  It is hugely inventive — on “You’re Not Ice,” he proves himself to be maybe the first artist ever to successfully channel Don Van Vliet in a song that pays homage to the best Captain Beefheart music of that long-ago age.  Kelley’s delved into Echo and the Bunnymen territory before, with his note-for-note rendition of Crocodiles.  Here the era is invoked in far more original fashion.

Maybe the best reference point for what we have here is Bowie, for on two consecutive songs — the Young Americans-sounding “Litter Love”, and on Wobbly, which could have been an outtake on any Bowie album between Lodger and Let’s Dance — we have a lovely invocation of the Thin White Duke.  And if you think about it, it would have been as unfair to slag Bowie when Let’s Dance came out — for not sounding like Ziggy or Aladdin Sane — as it would be to slag Kelley for not sounding like he did on Circular Sounds.

In Triangle Time is, as Double Exposure was before it, both an example of artistic growth and an instance where an artists seeks a bigger audience by getting away from the preciousness that attracts rock critters like yours truly.  We actually really like what he’s done here, even as we miss what he did before.  And we are tantalized by the release of 4 New Cuts, as it offers perhaps a clue to the Kelley Stoltz Classic sound that he might get back to in the future.  Or so we hope.

2 Responses to ““In Triangle Time” Is Another Side Of Kelley Stoltz”

  1. […] imaginable instrument (look ma, no band!) that it took us a few days to realize In Triangle Time is a concept record, and that for someone who lived through that musical moment this album captures so well — the […]

  2. […] already have raved about Kelley Stoltz a time or two, given his records the highest marks on our 2010 and 2008 Top Ten Lists.  Somehow, […]

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