Listening to Winnipeg duo Twilight Hotel’s folk-pop Highway Prayer, I can’t help but recall Carl Wilson’s recent, masterful exploration of aesthetics surrounding another Canadian musician: Celine Dion. In a book devoted to the diva’s Let’s Talk About Love, Wilson does his best to place the hipster-reviled Dion in contexts that make it difficult to dismiss the schmaltzy aspects of her fame and music by those who gravitate toward “cooler”, less showy and emotive fare. This is not to say that Twilight Hotel’s songs and music sound remotely like Dion’s in most respects, but there are aesthetic similarities. There’s something about both “My Heart Will Go On” and, say, “Iowalta Morningside” that is dorky and uncool, but also weirdly appealing. It is a shared natural inclination toward bombast and performance that contrasts starkly with what critics know they’re supposed to like. So let’s cut to the quick and put it right out there: I don’t like it. But I can and will admit that Highway Prayer (like Dion’s work now that I’ve been swayed by Carl Wilson) is also charming and earnest and makes me feel like a great big snobby jerk for not liking it.
Though Twilight Hotel’s stated influences include icon such as Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young (indeed, guest musicians on Highway Prayer have worked with everyone from Janis Joplin to Johnny Cash), any direct inspiration from those rock luminaries sounds filtered through coffeehouse jazz-folk and show-tunes. “Shadow of a Man”, for example, aims for Waits’s grimy subterranean waltz mystique, but ends up squeaky clean. It may be wrong to expect either Brandy Zdan or Dave Quanbury to achieve Waits’s wild grit; it would take a barnful of tobacco and a jug of grain alcohol. But it also seems kinda wrong, or at least just plain weird, to hear that influence so sterilized, like a punk band on a Disney Channel sitcom. But then again, is it me or them? Am I turned off because, to quote the Simpsons, “the whole thing smacks of effort, man”?
Opener “Viva La Vinyl” establishes the duo’s modus operandi with coy, flirtatious harmonies and a climactic back-and-forth between Zdan’s mannered scat and blustery lead guitar. The signals are all crystal clear: the song’s an homage to vinyl records and subsequently “old” music; the band is giddy, playful, and casual down to snippet of studio chatter that closes the track; and Twilight Hotel respectfully mine retro styles as if to reassure past generations that their music is still in good hands. There’s never a question as to what I’m supposed to glean from “Viva La Vinyl” or any other track, and that’s ultimately what holds the album back: a lack of mystery. “Sometimes I Get a Little Lonely” is predictably dusky, a parlor piano plinking out mournful chords, while Zdan’s vibrato wavers like a candle’s flame. It’s well-executed, almost too much. The supposed loneliness comes off as perkiness, as if the bar of Tom Waits’s Closing Time threw all the lights on.
But there are a few moments of subtlety and surprise here that suggest more intriguing paths for the young couple to follow. The album’s highlight is the Quanbury-led “The Ballad of Salvador and Isabelle”, which gently and naturally unfolds into something genuine and lovely. Backed by subdued Zdan harmonies and accordion, Quanbury lends the story of a brother and sister, illegal immigrants from Mexico looking for a better life in the States. The song ends tragically and a bit heavy-handed, but there are shades of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” in its folksy strum that aren’t derivative or reaching, and an unforced sense of realism as well. If Twilight Hotel can hold on to that and trust rather than push their talents, then they’ll be onto something.