There will always be those musicians that take over mainstream radio with an arsenal of simple pop songs in a strict, formulaic fashion. Then again, there are also those musicians who are truly multi-talented, who seem to grasp a unique spirit of songwriting while infusing a specifically crafted sound that makes it their own. Kelley Stoltz is a musician who falls into the latter category, and with his latest pop mastery, Below the Branches, he has delivered another well-crafted pop album.

The San Francisco resident has quickly become an indie rock favorite thanks to his fusion of Ben Folds’ piano pop, dreamy lyrics reminiscent of the late Nick Drake and the occasional psychedelic trance. His finest effort is his 2003 album, Antique Glow, on which Stoltz played most of the instruments and recorded it himself on a home system. After the critical and semi-commercial success of Antique Glow, Stoltz made a big jump from the smaller Jackpine Social Club label to the heavyweight champion of indie music, Sub Pop Records. The move may give Kelley Stoltz a shot at making a name for himself in radioland.

Stoltz blends a variety of sounds ranging from folk to psychedelic and mixes it all up into a bubbly batch of pure pop. With Below the Branches, Stoltz brings his piano into the limelight and hits the listener with flashes of sweet psychedelic guitar riffs, bells and other tweaked-out noises. Tracks like “Wave Goodbye,” “The Sun Comes Through,” and “The Rabbit Hugged the Hound” are classic examples of how Stoltz combines well-orchestrated, catchy pop songs with your casual guitar strumming.

Not uncommon in Stoltz’s repertoire are songs like, “Ever Thought of Coming Back,” which asks an obvious philosophical/religious question above a catchy Motown-meets-New Pornographers sound: “Jesus Christ what you been doing all this time / The clouds are nice you know I enjoy them on my mind / But if you ever thought of coming back well now is the time.”

The fourth track, “Words,” is an atmospheric song with an emphasis on lyricism (hence the title). The song plays out in a slow, hypnotic cloud of love that makes the listener want to hop on, glance at a People magazine cover and just drift away.

On this album, Kelley Stoltz beautifully arranges bouncy pop songs that are often melancholic in temperament; giving Below the Branches a genuine and sensitive feel with an upbeat sound. There are strong examples of fine songwriting in his simple shifts from psychedelic guitar to laidback folk, all mixed together with the constant dazzle of piano. The end result is an interesting album that, although it’s a little slow at times, makes for a good listen.
[Andrew Sweat is a persistent little bugger.]