Independent release, 2004
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/17/2004
The acoustic/electric, harmony-and-melody-rich. experimental-pop/Americana scene has grown so rich in the past decade with the likes of the Jayhawks, Whiskeytown and Wilco that it's hard to believe that another band could turn up producing songs and arrangements similar in both genre and quality. After a couple of listens to Hotel Lights, though, I've gotta say it: I'm a believer.
Hotel Lights is a quartet built around the songs, voice, piano
and acoustic guitar of Darren Jessee, best known up to now as the
drummer/harmony vocalist for Ben Folds Five. If you're anticipating
fresh variations on either of Jessee's best-known compositions for
BFF -- the thunderous, potty-mouthed rant "Song For The Dumped" or
the exquisite, heart-rending piano ballad "Magic" -- prepare to
veer off-course. There isn't a song on here that sounds vaguely
like any of Jessee's work with Folds.
Instead, you get the laid-back, gauzy stateliness of Cowboy Junkies married to the melodic smarts of Pernice Brothers, with a touch of alt-country experimentalism in the marriage of Jessee's gently strummed acoustic guitars with Chris Badger's quirky, atmospheric electronic keyboards. North Carolina cohorts Roger Gupton (bass, background vocals) and Mark Price (drums) fill out the lineup. Producer Alan Weatherhead also adds slide guitar to two tracks, while Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger contributes to arrangements on three tracks, topping off this softly sparkling treasure-trove of melody.
Jessee's is a gentle voice full of vulnerability. "What's worse than your refusal / is my not wanting to" he sings in one typically elliptical stanza; the meaning is obscure, but the regret and longing conveyed is palpable. One of the mysteries of this band is how they manage to be quiet and full of spark at the same time.
The secret may lie in the most unique aspect of Hotel Lights -- the incorporation of Badger's electronic tones into the band's sonic palette. Still, even on songs where synthesizers play a substantial role ("A.M. Slow Golden Hill" and "Follow Through" come to mind, though synths are used on many of these tracks), the arrangements cast the technology as accents to the basic acoustic melody rather than flashy leads.
Hotel Lights do add a rock edge on a couple of songs ("I Am A Train" and "Marvelous Truth"), but they're entertaining diversions, as opposed to the focus of the disc. More typical are the haunting melodies of "Stumbling Home Winter Blues"; the nice textures of acoustic and electric piano, acoustic and slide guitar and brushes on "Motionless"; and dreamy, ambiguous choruses like this one: "nobody saw you fall / nobody saw you fall / nobody saw you fall / miles behind me…"
The perfect soundtrack for a quiet fall evening at home, Hotel Lights is full of lyrical, melancholy ruminations that will hang around the fringes of your consciousness for hours after the disc fades out. It's a very promising debut for a band with -- one hopes -- a bright future.
(For more information on Hotel Lights and how to purchase their disc, visit www.hotellights.net)
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