What impresses most about Below The Branches, the third album (following 2002’s little-heard Antique Glow and a song-for-song cover of Echo & The Bunnymen’s Crocodiles) from singer-songwriter Kelley Stoltz, is the seeming effortlessness of his pop compositions. Artists who aspire to Brian Wilson’s style and degree of craft—some very, very good acts, like The Shins and Animal Collective—often sound strident in direct comparison. Below The Branches, true to Stoltz’s DIY aesthetic, never overreaches or tries too hard to present itself as charming. Though his ‘60s-era influences remain clear on stand-outs like the rousing opener “Wave Goodbye” and harpsichord-driven “Summer’s Easy Feeling,” Stoltz’s melodies strike a distinctive balance between immediate hooks and freewheeling improvisation. Even by the standards of his new label, Stoltz’s album is an engaging, winsome lo-fi pop record. The only real knocks against the album are that Stoltz’s vocals occasionally recall Coldplay’s Chris Martin, albeit without the squicky falsetto, and that a few songs, like “Birdies Singing” and “Winter Girl” (which rhymes “stress ya” with “pressure,” “measure,” and “leisure,” all in a row), become almost cute. That the vast majority of Below The Branches is such overwhelmingly first-rate pop, though, earns a wide enough margin for error that the album, as a whole, rates among the best releases of early 2006.
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