Kelley Stoltz Keeps Mining Gems And His Latest,”Que Aura,” Gleams Like A Diamond

12 Jacket (3mm Spine) [GDOB-30H3-007}The cover photo of what Kelley Stoltz calls his “proper new album,” Que Aura, looks like something you’d see in a Kusama Infinity Room, all dots of light in a psychedelic space.  Like Kusama, Stoltz for the most part works alone, assembling true solo albums with painstaking craftsmanship, each track capturing an instrument played only by him.

Unlike Kusama, who resides in an asylum, Stoltz gets out of the house to play with bands, including touring as a sideman with his heroes Echo and the Bunnymen.  But in his own studio, over the past decade, he’s created an eccentric but exceptionally important and delightful body of work. As a recording artist, he deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence with the Beatles, David Bowie, Alex Chilton, and Ray Davies. Que Aura, released in August, is his best album since 2008’s Circular Sounds, which we would nestle alongside Rubber Soul, Radio City, and Lodger in the Go Bag that, one step ahead o’ the apocalypse, we’d take to the proverbial desert island.

Listening to Que Aura back-to-back with Below The Branches, the 2006 album that was our introduction to him, is instructive.  Back then, Stoltz was like a one-man version of the Fab 4 + George Martin, crafting intricate pop classics on acoustic piano and guitar, backed where needed by steady bass playing, what sounds like a Rickenbacker 6-string, and solid, unobtrusive drumming.  This was an era in which Stoltz says he was using a microphone propped in a sock drawer for wont of a proper studio and equipment.  The music is gorgeous, thrilling, inspirational, the seeming influences all from the ’60s.

A little more than a decade later, Que Aura sounds like it was recorded in a German studio with this generation’s George Martin twiddling the knobs.  As a singer, Kelley’s affect is effortless, but here he sounds like he’s fronting a really fantastic band whose rhythm section can swing.  And of course, it’s all him — an incredibly difficult trick to pull off.

Over his previous three albums — 2010’s To Dreamers, 2013’s Double Exposure, and 2015’s In Triangle Time — Stoltz has moved away from the delicacy of his earlier work to bring in New Wave influences, to thicken the sound a bit with horns and synths, and clearly Will Sergeant’s guitar sound (Echo + Bunnymen) and mid-period Bowie have inspired him in recent years. Like a craftsman who, after years of creating one-of-a-kind designs… pushing his needle and thread through fabric under a solitary light bulb… who has succumbed to such labor-saving devices as the sewing machine, Stoltz has rolled a bank of electronic keyboards into his atelier.  Keyboards have ruined many a solo practitioner’s studio work, from Prince to Tame Impala, but even though we miss the Rickenbacker and acoustic piano sound of yore, on Que Aura, he makes it all work. He’s still creating gems, but much as I love the pre-2010 work, these shine brighter.

The songwriting as a whole is stronger than on any album since Circular Sounds.  “I’m Here For Now” ranks with Double Exposure’s “Still Feel” and the most infectious rockers of his career.  “Tranquilo” is the closest thing Stoltz has produced to a hit you could see coming out of the Motown basement, and it has the quirks and charms of his greatest songs before culminating with psychedelic panache.  On “Same Pattern,” it’s clear that Kelley has had a conversation about synths with his label, Mr. John Dwyer.  Out of 11 songs, there are two we don’t think we’ll be listening to a decade hence.  This is a glorious clutch of songs, rendered with enough analog guitars, bass, and drums to prevent the electronic keyboards from ever smearing the delicacy, like a surfeit of Hollandaise on poached eggs.

Speaking of John Dwyer, there’s a reason why the progenitor of Thee Oh Sees, not to mention Jack White, would be the “label heads” putting out Stoltz’s most recent work.  In days of yore, some A&R chap at Warner Bros would have figured out how to slide a Kelley Stoltz contract past Mo Ostin.  But without a generous label afloat on a pontoon of CD sales taking a flyer on a talent like his, Stoltz is embraced by his fellow artists who know brilliance when they hear it.  Just as, gentle reader who has journeyed this far, we know you do too.

We 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, even with all our raving, we have failed in getting him to perform at Madison Square Garden.  We’re not done trying.  And based on Que Aura, Kelley Stoltz is not done appearing at the top of Tulip Frenzy’s annual Top 10 List.

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