Rarely does a band truly understand the inextricable relationship between sound and image—both visual and overall perception. When a band selects a name, they are permanently shaping the way an audience will first interact with them, even before the audience hears the music. Think, for instance, how many people must have reached the conclusion the Goo Goo Dolls are sappy rubbish before hearing the proof. The same holds true for album covers, which, when carefully selected, should give the listener an idea of the overall tone of the album. More importantly, a great album cover intrigues the viewer, thus arousing interest in the band. Name and image, indeed, are crucial to a band’s aura, and bands like the Smiths realized that the two could be used to create a mystique that shapes a career.
Hotel Lights, the band of former Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee, know how to combine sound and image. Their debut album features a light blue cover with a picture of a hotel room window; outside the window is a neon sign, so faded it almost blends into the dreary autumnal sky. Overall, the cover feels both lonesome and nostalgic, much like a person on a solitary road trip trying to simultaneously escape and come to terms with the past. Then there’s the band’s name, which also evokes feelings of solitude and reveals the impossibility of hiding from oneself. Speaking of his band’s name, Darren Jesse said, “When you see hotel lights in the distance, you feel like, ‘Yeah, I’m almost there.’ But when you stand in the bathroom and turn on the hotel lights… you see every scar.” Damn, that’s poetic.
And poetic this album is, both musically and lyrically. Overall, the songs are spare and spacious. Most of the tracks feature basic instrumentation—acoustic guitar, drums, keyboards—and the music is open to give the lyrics room to breathe. “You Come and I Go” begins with the sound of howling wind, then a slow acoustic strum is introduced, then Jessee’s soft, fragile voice. Simple and uncluttered, it’s a study in songwriting; more is not always better, and a memorable melody can do more for a song than layers of noise. Many of the songs, such as “Small Town Shit”, are crafted in the same mold; built upon a slow chord progression and featuring flourishes of fills and leads that provide variation and enhance the mood of the work.
Not all of the tracks, however, are slow burners. “I Am a Train”, for instance, is classic sunny pop, featuring a steady, propulsive beat and a catchy refrain of “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright… Come on, come on, come on, come on”. Infectious and durable, it sounds like a song Wilco would make if they didn’t take themselves so seriously. “Marvelous Truth” is another up-tempo song, this one showing the band’s diversity. Beginning with surf keyboards, it’s markedly different from the other tracks, but still displays the band’s penchant for melody and rhythm.
Even when he’s upbeat, though, Jessee can’t help but sound pensive and literate. His voice, delicate and restrained, is perfectly suited to both the music and lyrics, particularly when the latter veers towards the poetic—which is often. By connecting emotions to everyday places and objects, Jessee is able to convey complex feelings in simple language. “Stumbling Home Winter Blues”, for example, perfectly captures the isolation of heartbreak in mid-winter: “Goodbye, street light, good night / I’m sure that I’ll be fine / I called from a payphone / You were still sleeping / Daylight is breaking / My head is spinning…” Not only are these words gorgeous, they also display Jessee’s lyrical wisdom; lesser lyricists would have rhymed “night” with “alright” and “breaking” with “aching”. By avoiding the obvious rhymes, Jessee maintains the poignancy of the lyrics, and adds yet another small detail of craftsmanship to an album full of such artistic care.
Hotel Lights requires time to truly appreciate. While many of the songs are instantly catchy, others are so nuanced it takes repeated listens to hear the layers of instrumentation and realize the craftsmanship of the songs. Yet while the majority of the tracks here are wonderfully understated and wistful, others are so light they dissolve and drift away like random memories. This is forgivable; after all, the songs are about random memories that drift away, so it’s understandable if a few of the songs are so airy they lack direction. Ultimately, this is a solid debut by a band wise enough to know that the musical experience extends beyond the actual songs. Like the view outside the window on the album’s cover, these songs capture the possibility that something beautiful might be waiting just beyond the loneliness.