Aware as I am of how pettily spiteful negative reviews invariably seem upon reading, I tried rather hard to enjoy this record. I didn?t say ?very hard?, as I would have been lying; I put no effort into leaving behind my initial dislikes and hesitancies about specific elements of Stoltz?s song writing and sound. And I must admit that before listening to the record, I read through some of the lyrics and was rather unimpressed, something that probably communicates more about my experience of ?Below the Branches? than the tangle I just set out above.
Forgetting all of that, the first thing to be said about this record is that it is a singer-song writer record on which Stoltz plays almost everything. It has a definite retro bedroom philosophy slant, which remains even (and maybe seems more apparent) when Stoltz rocks out, like on the opening track ?Wave Goodbye? where, over a piano led backing reminiscent of ?Times Fade Away? era Neil Young, he sings , ?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 sets the tone for both the lyrical content and musical style of the rest of the album. Stoltz is a ?classic? songwriter in the Mojo magazine sense of the word and the sort of names associated with the review section of that magazine constantly come to mind (David Bowie, The Band, Nick Drake, Ray Davies etc).
?Ever Thought of Coming Back? is the highlight and hopefully the radio single; a perfect, sprightly retro pop song, it manages to sail along in one?s mind on a sea of reference points never really stopping on any particular audible influence. For me it sounds like a cross between ?Love You? style Beach Boys and ?Hunky Dory? David Bowie sung by a less bratty sounding Julian Casablancas of the Strokes. But the influences become beside the point; so many come to mind that after a while it just registers as an album of ?real? songs, that are unfortunately not very noteworthy or, the aforementioned ?Ever Thought of Coming Back? aside, terribly catchy. The Nick Drake-esque ballads, are pleasant but a touch formulaic (in a negative way; as difficult as it is to explain, any Magnetic Fields fan knows how good a formulaic ballad can be), the occasional touches of adventurous droning production work seems badly pasted on and the whimsical touches whether in a vaguely Robert Wyatt reminiscent fashion in the more unconventional melody of ?Words? or in the Village Green Preservation Society Ray Davies music hall of ?The Rabbit Hugged the Hound? are marred by the same sense of sense of an earnest emotional communication that cannot be left behind that tends to mar the more exploratory parts of Microphones and Radiohead records (you know what i mean?).
Now I feel like a snooty critic out to hurt feelings, the last thing I want to do. Really what I intended to communicate was that this record is probably more suited to the conservative Mojo reader than the Foxy Digitalis regular (again not trying to be snooty?). Now someone is going to send me a harsh email correcting all of my grammar and spelling mistakes to get back at me for not liking it.
One last note to make everything better (five minutes later): the backwards drone action at the beginning of the record and the production are both beautiful. Ahh? I wasn?t cut out for this. At least I?m introducing (hardly introducing) existential dilemma into record reviews. One last, last thing; Supergrass, but American, and ?post lo-fi?. 6/10 -- Francis Plagne (29 June, 2006)