When I listen to an artist for the first time, I usually try not to compare them to other musicians. I sort of imagine that, were I making music, I would get pretty frustrated if, after spending a year creating what I considered a unique piece of art, someone were to say, “Oh, you sound just like ‘___’ but a little worse.” That said, listening to San Francisco native, self-ascribed ambient rocker, Kelley Stoltz’s newest album, To Dreamers, released on Sub Pop records two weeks ago, my mind cannot help but jump to comparisons. The Shins (on Chutes too Narrow) meets The Kinks (one of Stoltz’s self-proclaimed influences) is thus far the best I can come up with.
Honestly, that’s a pretty generous interpretation. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy the album – I actually do enjoy it quite a bit– but I think that the reason I can’t help being reminded of other artists when I listen to Kelley Stoltz is because, simply put, he has a pretty generic 60s rock sound, which actually might be what he’s going for. According to SubPop Records’ description, Stoltz has a “nigh-religious reverence for all things Beatles, Beach Boys and Kinks,” and it shows. But back to my comparison, some of Stoltz’s more modern pop-infused jangles bring the Shins to mind, but his voice feels much more one-dimensional than James Mercer’s, and while he captures the energy behind some of the Kinks’s simple, melodic guitar riffs, his lyrics (“Sitting on your fire escape/Have a smoke on the fire escape/Counting birds on the fire escape”) aren’t quite as catchy or nearly as nuanced as The Kinks’s.
Ultimately the album, while pretty forgettable, manages to be thoroughly enjoyable, and I kind of can’t help but bob my head and tap my feet along to the catchy melodies that remind me of some of the bands of my parents’ days. The horns Stoltz brings in (and plays himself) on songs like “I Like I Like” match his voice perfectly, but there is just too much going on sonically and too little going on lyrically for it to really work. He is at his best when he tunes down his heavy-on-the-guitar, rock n’ roll beats and embraces a slower, more refined vibe in songs like “August,” “Pinecone,” and “Bottle Up.” For a moment, I find myself thinking about how good the album could have been had he done this more, but then another song comes on and I absent-mindedly return to my head-bobbing, toe-tapping space out.
- Dan Stokes (Co-host of 6 Degrees of Jeff Mangum, 4-6 PM Sundays)