Karmic Chameleon

Kelley Stoltz's Antique Glow shines with a voice both familiar and unique

On a hot night in September, Kelley Stoltz winds his girlfriend's minivan to the top of Twin Peaks. As Captain Beefheart's "Observatory Crest" comes on the tape deck, the local singer/songwriter explains his lifelong love for Echo & the Bunnymen. "They were weird -- they had cool songs, they had a whole attitude and a whole style. It was like rock 'n' roll but kind of strange."

The same can be said of Stoltz's own music. For each winsome melody, there's a bizarre instrumental passage; for every catchy rock riff, there's a peculiar lyrical phrase. A song like "Jewel of the Evening" (off Stoltz's second album, Antique Glow) may start out sounding like a pretty Nick Drake track, but then you catch the odd line about "places and people using shortwave for church steeple." Or consider "Listen Darkly," with its sweet organ that contrasts its junkie protagonist's raw need to "go down to Atlantis." The song sounds like Beck channeling Jules Verne via Lou Reed.

"He's got a gift for the abstract expressionist way of making records," says local guitarist and tastemaker Chuck Prophet about Stoltz. "What I mean by that is that it's really rare that an artist can make something that sounds fucked up and bent and, at the same time, composed and beautiful."

Debra A. Zeller

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Celebrates the release of Antique Glow

Saturday, Oct. 11, at 9 p.m.

Tickets are $10

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Stoltz's material wasn't always so well crafted. His first album, 1999's The Past Was Faster, was little more than a lo-fi collection of impersonations, an overt love letter to rock's elder statesmen. "That first album is funny to listen to," the singer says, "because I hadn't really learned how to absorb something and turn it into me yet." Now, with the CD release of Antique Glow, Stoltz shows his true colors -- those of an urban philosopher able to turn the oddities in his head into charming post-punk folk.


Onstage, Kelley Stoltz has the look of a foxy English professor -- the one all the girls hoped would seduce them during office hours. But sitting in the minivan looking out over the lit-up city, talking about the music he loves, it's easy to imagine the singer as a suburban Detroit teen caught in the thrall of Echo & the Bunnymen, skipping school to buy import singles and perfect his British accent. "I had a lot of time to my own [as a kid]," Stoltz says, "so I would stand in front of the mirror and practice air guitar to [the Bunnymen's] records and smoke cigarettes like they did onstage."

By the time Stoltz left Michigan for New York in 1993, at the age of 22, he'd been in one band, which did rudimentary covers of the Bunnymen and Minor Threat. "At that point I could play guitar a little bit but I was too scared to be my own musician," Stoltz recalls. "I thought, 'I'm never going to be good enough to be a musician, so I can at least work in the music business.'"

In Manhattan, he scored a job as an intern for Jeff Buckley, who was just becoming a star, but the bloom soon fell off the rose. "It was just like selling furniture -- no different than working some other office job."

By late 1994, Stoltz had grown sick of Gotham City and, after a short stop in his home state, he headed out to San Francisco. Having been turned on to mopey songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Syd Barrett, and Neil Young, Stoltz transitioned from electric to acoustic guitar and began recording original numbers on a four-track in his basement studio. These songs would comprise The Past Was Faster, released on CD by New York's Telegraph label in 1999.

"I'd always loved doing voice impersonations, and, in that time with music, it was kinda the same thing," Stoltz says about Faster. "You can try to talk like Vin Scully of the Dodgers [he breaks into a good version of the baseball announcer's voice], or you can try to sing like Captain Beefheart."

Stoltz succeeded in aping his idols, howling like Beefheart on "The Fog Has Lifted," capturing the Bunnymen's chug-and-fuzz vibe on "Emerald Stew," and nailing Drake in "Permafrost." But while there were some pretty moments, the disc felt a bit too much like hero worship and too little like genuine inspiration.

When Telegraph agreed to release a second CD, Stoltz told the label he wanted to upgrade his recording equipment. "I said, 'I've got bigger ideas, I want to try cooler stuff,' so they got me an eight-track as an advance."

He found a cheap organ -- what he calls a "granny organ," because it's the kind of bulky, out-of-tune machine that grandmothers own -- at the Salvation Army and began writing songs with it. Quitting his teaching job, he lived for the next two years on income gained from reselling old LPs from thrift stores, all the while working on his tunes.

In late 2001, he completed his new opus. Unfortunately, Telegraph had moved from releasing records to distributing them. With no other label offers, Stoltz decided to put out the album himself -- on vinyl. He called it Antique Glow, because he felt he was making something new out of the old. Further extending the metaphor, Stoltz created each of the 200 covers by hand, taking ratty old record jackets and painting over them, recontextualizing the images in the process. (He got the idea from artist Judith Lindbloom, who'd crafted one-of-a-kind album covers for her then-boyfriend, saxophonist Steve Lacy.) Hence, Frank Sinatra became a blue and orange bunny, and Peggy Lee re-emerged as "egg"; lovers gained giant balls for heads, floating bodies dreamt of smiling suns, and craniums melded with machinery.

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