A Sad History

The Motel Pines

Independent release, 2016


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Sometimes the artist makes it apparent what they’re up to from the opening chords of an album; other times you can’t appreciate the full scope of their vision until the very last notes begin to fade away.

This much is clear from the promo photo fronting the booklet that arrived with A Sad History tucked inside its back cover—the Motel Pines is a band of survivors, a two-guitars-bass-and-drums bar band with high foreheads and lines on their faces, the image suggesting four hard-working guys with day jobs who have never had the luxury of taking their music-making for granted. As revealed by the passionate lyrics that threaten to overflow the margins of the trade paperback-sized lyric booklet, the life experience under their belts has worn them down but not defeated them, and in the end what this often-ferocious album celebrates is that simplest of victories: I’m still here.

The Motel Pines’ sound channels this aura of grim determination: intense, riff-heavy songs that propel you through dark narratives exploring the hardest truths and most difficult moments of our lives. It’s tighter and more melodic than Pearl Jam, tougher and more grounded than The Hold Steady, but feels like a cousin to both in its combination of muscular drive and penetrating intelligence. Singer/rhythm guitarist Michael Carrasco writes the lyrics, and co-writes the music with bandmates Mark Starling (drums), John Rowland (bass) and Ben Gaither (lead guitar).

The song titles provide an instant clue to the group’s lyrical ambition as the album leads off with the 1-2-3 punch of “Circadianism,” “Myths Disguised As Meaning,” and “#nolivesmatter.” The former makes a powerful opener, its assertive ’90s alt-rock guitars blazing a trail as Carrasco pleads “If it’s only a dream / Then please just let me sleep,” hiding from his troubles behind closed eyes. Not many bar bands grapple with faith in a punchy 3:29 tune, but that’s exactly what happens in the hooky, rambunctious “Myths”: “There is no sin / In the human condition / We are not flawed / We are not incomplete” —and it works. “There was a time I wanted truth,” Carrasco concludes, “But that was way back in my youth / Now I’m content with absurdity.”

“#nolivesmatter” feels like The Hold Steady trading verses with U2 as Carrasco monologues on political philosophy over propulsive riffing, leading to this resonant epitaph: “While my heart is broken / And I feel so hopeless / It’s just for a moment.” There’s a sort of apocalyptic desperation in the vocals on the anthemic “Champagne Rivers” as he declares “We may face the reckoning we’ve earned / By building this machine.” By the end of the slower, more spacious “My Abandoned Ship,” featuring shimmery, burnished chords from Gaither over a steady march from Starling and Rowland, Carrasco offers this small comfort: “But before I sink, please know that the trip was worth it.”

The second half of the album offers variations on the same. “Sincerest Apologies” mines the thesaurus for another round of political philosophy over ringing chords. On “Unworthy!” the Pines dip into cliché, singing of jobs that “paid the bills / But they hollowed us out inside,” but it’s hard not to forgive familiar sentiments delivered with this much passion and sincerity. “Of Mediocrity” backs off the gas pedal a bit for a number with echoey, resonant guitar tones that remind of Explosions in the Sky.

In the final quarter, The Pines’ one Achilles’ Heel becomes clear; they do one thing: big, riff-heavy, intense numbers full of literary aspiration—and that’s it; by the time you get to “A Declining Trend” and “The Head And The Heart” it’s all feeling rather familiar and you’re yearning for a fresh twist of some kind (although the latter does offer one great line: “Why would we rather break than bend / I wish there was a devil so I could blame it all on him”). The airy, upbeat “Good Things” at least offers a change of pace in terms of mood as Carrasco challenges his own pessimism, acknowledging that despite everything, “the good things, they will never go away.” 

And then we arrive at the big finish. “Best Parts Of Me” brings it all together with one possible explanation for the 11 shades of gloom that precede it: an elegy for a lover dying surrounded by “Doctors in white coats whose hearts had died.” The heartfelt nature of the lyric and the bold, anthemic music behind it inevitable reminds of Counting Crows’ “A Murder Of One”; it’s genuinely epic alt-rock, with the highest emotional stakes imaginable: “And you must believe me / When I tell you this is true / I owe you my liiiiiiiiiife.”

And that’s when the realization hits: the scale and intensity of these songs, their thematic consistence and novelistic qualities, the way they all lead up to the grand finale, a cathartic six-minute anthem… regardless of intentions, in the end A Sad History feels like an alt-rock opera.

Beyond the darkness of a lot of the lyrical content, some listeners may have issues with Carrasco’s voice; if you’re hung up on pure vocal quality, he can be a tough listen, with a throat full of 80-grit sandpaper and a let-it-fly delivery that values authentic emotion over all other considerations. Once your eyes adjust to the light, though, Motel Pines offers a compelling vision: propulsive songs, thoughtful lyrics, and a grand finale that’s not to be missed.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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