San Francisco's Kelley Stoltz has thoroughly immersed himself in the sounds that emerged from his adopted hometown in the 1960s. But the singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with a penchant for crafting organic, richly textured home recordings manages to revive the flower power vibe without delivering a patchouli-soaked slab of rote imitation. Stoltz's fifth album, and second for Sub Pop, Circular Sounds is the work of an artist simultaneously gazing backward and forward to create relevant meditations on life's vagaries, particularly with regard to matters of the heart. Stoltz might tip his hat to, say, the Dead on occasion, but there's never that gauche moment when you feel the ghost of Haight-Ashbury past has overpowered him.
Circular Sounds includes 14 tracks, none clocking in at over 3:15. The melodies engage on a substantial level — they're smartly bereft of blatant hooks designed to instantly ensnare the listener at the expense of long-lasting gratification. The songs are mostly built around acoustic guitar, fleshed out with charming flourishes of piano, saxophone, fuzz guitar, jaw harp, tambourine and myriad other instruments that gracefully ease in and out of the mix. Pacing is an important characteristic of the album. The opening number, "Everything Begins," chugs down the rails with a blast of horns and a delightfully frantic piano run repeated throughout. Weird, homemade calliope music also pops up in the background. "Everything Begins" is a breakup song, but we're left reflecting on both the bliss and grief associated with having known a lover with the closing line: "Everything begins and seems to end with you."
The decidedly gentler "Gardenia," is mostly restrained acoustic guitar strumming and subtle piano. The song lingers, poignantly, like a love letter rescued from a dusty storage bin.
Soltz's vocals are breathy, assured and strangely compelling. His lyrics possess a confessional bent peppered with kaleidoscopic imagery that fascinates rather than distracts. "Mother Nature" gets name-checked, but the album is by no means mired in hippie idealism. Familiar yet fresh, romantic but skeptical, Circular Sounds comes remarkably close to achieving that delicate balance of pop perfection. 4 stars —Wade Tatangelo
Made in the Dark
Its third studio effort and the follow-up to 2006's critical fave The Warning finds U.K. electro outfit Hot Chip getting their ballad on. The pretty, synth-soul of "We're Looking for a Lot of Love" and the title track, a low-key breakup lament, prove that Felix Martin and his arsenal of laptop beat geeks can manage just fine away from dance floor, thank you very much. There are still headphone-ready moments aplenty: The dense, infectious "Shake a Fist" halts about halfway through to instruct folks to put in their buds before tweaking the balance, and "One Pure Thought" scrolls between Alexis Taylor's vocals, keyboard and guitar hooks in a loopy Chip off the audio block. 3.5 stars —Amanda Schurr
How could a Beatles fan not smile at the scrapbook appeal of the title track? A charmingly sentimental account of Richard Starkey's rise to Starr-dom, it spotlights his hometown ("Liverpool 8" is the name of the neighborhood where he was raised), chronicles going to Hamburg with "George and Paul, and my friend John" and then references The Beatles' historic performance at Shea. Over big guitars and bombastic strings, Starr maximizes his limited vocal ability, sounding genuinely moved as he delivers lines like: "Liverpool I left you, said goodbye to Madryn Street/ I always followed my heart, and I never missed a beat." The rest of the album — produced by Dave Stewart (Eurhythmics) and featuring all original songs that Starr at least cowrote — doesn't include any tracks as memorable as "Liverpool 8" but remains solid throughout. Cynics might balk at Starr's '60s-esque, all-you-need-is-love themes — but that's their problem. 3 stars —WT