To understand Kelley Stoltz, you needn't look much further than the lyrics to "Wave Goodbye," the sunny stomp that opened his 2006 album, Below the Branches: "Find a thing that makes you happy/Find a thing that gets you high/Pack your worries in a suitcase/Send them off and wave goodbye."
This would be a hackneyed credo if Stoltz didn't live by it, designing his life here in San Francisco accordingly since departing his native Detroit in the '90s. The suitcase he's keeping is full of old vinyl, pointing the way. Stoltz has plugged away for years now at mastering his buoyant, purposefully nostalgic take on songwriting, one that recalls a time when a pleasing three-chord song was its own reward. The eight-track he uses seals the deal, ensuring his feel-good ditties glimmer warmly, evading the harsh digital edge of many a modern home recordist.
Stoltz likewise evades the crunch of the workaday world. His friend Ben Blackwell, drummer for Detroit garage rockers the Dirtbombs (whom Stoltz will be supporting for a month this spring), seems envious. "I stayed at his house with him for about a week," Blackwell says. "I think — and I don't mean this as a put-down — he's got a fairly simple and easy life." He describes Stoltz' apartment as containing "an eight-track in this smallish room" and his nine-to-five as consisting of "a couple days a week at the record store."
Grooves, the Upper Market secondhand record store where Stoltz works, seems the ideal place for this music obsessive with a taste for vintage tunes. "We don't carry a lot of new things," he says, speaking from a hotel room in Australia as he prepares for his latest tour. "I've absorbed a generation's past of music by choice, and just by the environment there."
Stoltz' home is also full of records, and surely there's some osmosis at work. You can imagine that the deepest grooves are on the late-'60s records seeping into his own soft-edged psychedelia. This, from a guy who grew up on '80s post-punk and released a song-for-song re-creation of Echo and the Bunnymen's Crocodiles. "I guess I just found a natural home in that era of sound," he explains. "I started to find a lot of the '80s stuff I grew up with a little heavy-handed, especially vocally — a lot of overwrought emotion and things like that that I wasn't connecting with at this age anymore."
On his latest offering, Circular Sounds, Stoltz' '60s assimilation is at its peak. Album opener "Everything Begins," with its pitchy horns and manic stomp, mirrors Barrett-era Pink Floyd. "The Birmingham Eccentric" plows forth like the Velvet Underground at its most propulsive. Much of Circular Sounds is reminiscent of elder pop statesman Ray Davies. Stoltz' innate melodic sense and lilting delivery recall the Kinks at their most placid, effortlessly evoking their celebrations of the everyday. Stoltz' "To Speak to the Girl" is a wry exploration of nerve-racking adolescent romance, while "Morning Sun" is a languid hangover tale.
One thing Stoltz doesn't seem to share with Davies is a propensity for temper tantrums or liquor-fueled iconoclasm. Plying Blackwell for some epic tale of Stoltz debauchery proves futile. "The most hilarious thing I would see, the most 'tortured artist' he got, was in the morning," he says. "Kelley would have to have his tea. He was really excited when we were in England because he was able to get, like, a box of 120 PG Tips teabags for, like, two pounds, and in America it costs, like, 20 bucks."
So Stoltz has seemingly found the thing that makes him happy, the thing that gets him high. He's a tea-fueled troubadour, as eager to soak up pop's vast history as he is to expand upon it.