Vancouver's country pop trio Ashley Park -- Terry Miles, Kelly Haigh, and Gregory MacDonald -- sound amiable enough on their third album, The Secretariat Motor Hotel, but "amiable" is about the strongest word I can muster to describe the band. Maybe such a description reeks of damning with faint praise, but as the Kinks circa The Village Green Preservation Society, or, more recently, Beachwood Sparks and their 21st century update of Gram Parsons's Astral Americana -- two touchstones for Ashley Park -- proved, amiable can get you pretty far. That said, Ashley Park, enjoyable as they are, aren't quite in that league yet.
While most of The Secretariat Motor Hotel is populated with gentle alt-country that would be the perfect soundtrack to a hike on, say, the Appalachian Trail, Ashley Park also traffic in Beulah-style indie pop. In fact, TSMH's first two tracks -- the ambling, minor-key piano-led "I Guess I'm Going Away" and "Father Hill's American Farm", with its indie-pop horns -- could trick unsuspecting listeners into thinking they've stumbled onto a lost, pastoral Elephant 6 recording. No such luck.
As fun and goodhearted as those songs are, it's a bit of a letdown when the middle of the album shifts to Americana, the genre where lyricist Miles's heart resides. A clean, twangy guitar leads Miles (with some backing vocal help from Haigh) through "The Old Wolves", whose suggestion to "shake your years off" plays like an invitation to frolic with Ray Davies on The Village Green. Straightforward pedal steel alt-country like that of "The Old Wolves" is Miles's strength, but it's also The Secretariat Motor Hotel's undoing: there are simply too many songs that sound the same through the album's middle third. This is a forgivable sin (the only punishment is a mediocre review), but what's worse is knowing that the band is capable of penning a catchy pop tune, because they did just that with "I Guess I'm Going Away". As for the rest of the alt-country stuff, "The Ballad of Mad Cameron Howard", despite a strong bluesy guitar solo, suffers from Miles not actually describing the title character. The shuffling "You'll Be Lonesome Too" is just so much wheel-spinning, while "A Letter to the Mounties" is more of the same. None of these songs are unlistenable -- heck, "The Lonely Lights of Home" summons up the Silver Jews' most countrified moments off Bright Flight (and that's always a good thing) -- but they leave you wanting more.
Ashley Park right the ship by album's end, however. Starting with "Born Again" (how apropos), TSMH becomes much more spry and lively. But here's the thing: Ashley Park do so even as they retain their Americana roots. Miles and Haigh's duet on "Born Again" could be the Knitters, if Exene Cervenka and John Doe had been brainwashed into forgetting they were ever in X. Meanwhile, the keyboard-drenched "Our Glory Days" is Mercury Rev (!) gone country. It's not necessarily an album highlight, but it's a welcome departure from AP's formula. The feather-light "Rocco the Policeman" is pure pop, with a bright-friendly twang. Sure, a strong breeze would knock the song over, but The Secretariat Motor Hotel needs more songs like "Rocco".
I'm all for Ashley Park's embracing of Americana; as a band they've got the chops and the heart. And they're certainly amiable enough (note to self: buy thesaurus). But a better album lurks beneath The Secretariat Motor Hotel's alt-country exterior. If Ashley Park can harness and focus their pop sensibilities, they might be able to move from the motor hotel to the penthouse suite.