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+ Donato Wharton - Body Isolations
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+ Rosy Parlane - Jessamine
+ Jarvis Cocker - The Jarvis Cocker Record
+ Múm - Peel Session
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+ Camille - Le Fil
+ Wolf Eyes - Human Animal
+ Christina Carter - Electrice
+ The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
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+ Bob Dylan - Modern Times
+ Excepter - Alternation
+ Chris Thile - How To Grow A Woman From The Ground
+ Brad Mehldau - Live in Japan
+ M Ward - Post-War
+ Various Artists - Touch 25
+ The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely
+ The White Birch - Come Up For Air
+ Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out of This Country
+ Coachwhips - Double Death
+ Various Artists - Tibetan And Bhutanese Instrumental And Folk Music, Volume 2
+ Giuseppe Ielasi - Giuseppe Ielasi
+ Cex - Actual Fucking
+ Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche
+ Leafcutter John - The Forest And The Sea
+ Carla Bozulich - Evangelista
+ Barbara Morgenstern - The Grass Is Always Greener
+ Robin Guthrie - Continental
+ Peaches - Impeach My Bush
+ Oakley Hall - Second Guessing
+ Klee - Honeysuckle
+ The Court & Spark - Hearts
+ TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain
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+ Jenny Wilson - Love And Youth
+ Asobi Seksu - Citrus
+ Marsen Jules - Les Fleurs
+ The Moore Brothers - Murdered By The Moore Brothers
+ Regina Spektor - Begin To Hope
+ The 1900s - Plume Delivery EP
+ Alejandro Escovedo - The Boxing Mirror
+ Function - The Secret Miracle Fountain
+ Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
+ Loscil - Plume
+ Boris - Pink
+ Deadboy And The Elephantmen - We Are Night Sky
+ Glissandro 70 - Glissandro 70
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #1)
+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
+ The Fiery Furnaces - Bitter Tea
+ Motorpsycho - Black Hole/Blank Canvas
+ The Red Krayola - Introduction
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+ American Princes - Less And Less
+ Sondre Lerche And The Faces Down Quartet - Duper Sessions
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Kelley Stoltz
Below The Branches
Sub Pop

"Buy the thing that makes you happy/ Buy the thing that gets you high/ Pack your worries in a suitcase/ Send them off and say goodbye," is how Kelley Stoltz's way-beyond-excellent third album begins, and this happy-go-lucky sentiment, swathed in jittery piano and old-time, vibrato-laced, medicine-show singing, is both a statement of philosophy and an advertisement. Coming out at the height of seasonal affective disorder season, Below the Branches is everything you need to keep winter's crushing dullness at bay — a Prozac-laced musical brownie for cold mornings and darkening afternoons. A giant step up from last year's EP Sun Comes Through (with which it shares one track), this new full-length is a clearer, more cohesive realization of Stoltz's art than either Antique Glow or The Past Was Faster, and both of those were near-classics. It is quite possibly Stoltz's best work ever, and certainly one of the landmark releases of 2006.

Stoltz draws from the same set of influences as on previous albums: The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Nick Drake, Syd Barrett and countless Nuggets-era three-chorders. Yet he seems more in control of those influences this time out, more able to filter them through his own distinct perspective. For example, while "Ever Coming Back" starts out with unmistakable homage to Brian Wilson, it diverges almost immediately into the kind of jaunty, fuzzy, garage anthem we've come to expect from Stoltz.

Pianos figure prominently in the album art, both on the cover and on the disc itself, suggesting that Below the Branches was conceived primarily on the ivories. That's not a limiting factor exactly, since Stoltz coaxes a great deal of variety out of this single instrument. For instance, there's a tranquil piano line in "Words," the song that contains the title, that is cool and refreshing as running water as it runs through the lovely melody. Later on, in "Sun Comes Through," the keyboards turn raucous, banging out barroom chords and scale progressions. With "Winter Girl," minor chords, widely spaced, frame Stoltz's fragile song at its beginning and end, giving an old-fashioned resonance to sweetly plaintive lyrics like "Oh, it's awfully cold, it's gotten awfully cold here/ And oh, if the truth be told, you've got a snowflake on your cheek, dear." And with "Prank Calls," the piano's trills and flourishes would sound right at home in a Western saloon as the gunslinger makes his entrance.

These songs are not all piano ballads. There's some wonderful slide guitar at the beginning of "Birdies Singing," leading into a driving yet somehow trance-inducing garage beat. Sean Coleman plays electric here, and on several other tracks, kicking in those pinging reverberating notes that give this hard-rocking track an appealing weirdness. This cut is followed by the excellent "Rabbit Hugged the Hound," with its dreamy harmonies and giddily utopian lyrics, one of the highlights of the disc. Then it's on to "Sun Comes Through," from last year's EP, sounding fuller and more stately and eccentric than ever.

The CD closes exquisitely, with the minimal but beautiful "No World But This World," all picked guitars and sweet wavery vocals. Like the rest of the album, the track is centered on the here and now, accepting the world for all its flaws and celebrating it. "Ain't no world like the world we've got here/ Ain't no place I'd rather go/ Ain't nowhere I'd rather be dear/ I close my eyes and I'm home," Stoltz sings, and you have to agree, this is pretty good, right here and now.

by Jennifer Kelly

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