An album worthy of a recommendation that also inadvertently makes the case for why Hotel Lights has been toiling in obscurity for a decade.
Hotel Lights has been quietly plugging along for a decade now, but the band’s frontman/songwriter Darren Jessee is arguably still better known as the drummer for Ben Folds Five. It’s true that “better known” is itself a debatable term in this case because Jessee and BFF bassist Robert Sledge are probably not particularly well-known outside of the Ben Folds fandom. But, a little sadly for Jessee and his cohorts, Hotel Lights doesn’t seem to have gained much traction in their decade as a band. Here at PopMatters we at least reviewed the band’s first two albums, but quick searches over at Pitchfork and at media aggregator Metacritic reveal exactly 0 hits for their name.
Depressing statistics aside, Get Your Hand in My Hand continues Jessee’s tradition of writing subdued, melancholy guitar pop. This is affecting at first, but it starts to wear thin over the course of an entire album. Opener “Lens Flare” features softly strummed acoustic guitars, gently plucked bass, and soft synth burbles over a simple drum machine style beat. Jessee sings just as quietly, barely more than a whisper, sketching in moments in a relationship. It’s a very pretty song that lacks a real hook. The verses are fine, the chorus is decent, but the only part that really grabs the ear is the pre-chorus where the chords get a little darker, sounding just different enough from the rest of the song to be interesting. Second song “Everything Hurts You Now” fares better right from the get-go, as Jessee finds a compelling vocal melody immediately. He doesn’t necessarily do much with that melody once it’s established, but the song limits itself to vocals and acoustic guitar for its entire first half before bringing in the rest of the band. It’s not a unique choice, but it serves to buttress the song enough to keep it interesting for the full three-and-a-half minutes.
This is how the bulk of Get Your Hand in My Hand goes. The songs are never less than pleasant but rarely particularly memorable. Occasionally Jessee gets just a little more upbeat and this tends to help pull the record out of its sleepy reverie. “Unbound” would count as a ballad on most bands’ albums, but here, with two legitimate riffs, drum fills, and slightly more energetic vocals, it’s a genuine change of pace. “For All Time” is a mid-tempo pop-rocker with an electric guitar lead and a hooky chorus and it’s so refreshing, coming eight songs into the record.
At other times Hotel Lights put themselves in the unenviable position of inviting direct comparisons to other bands. “What a Love” is a strong piano ballad, except that it opens with a piano introduction that echoes about 85% of the piano introduction of the Pogues’ classic “Fairytale of New York". Lyrically the song also references New York, so one assumes the reference is intentional, but “What a Love” suffers in the face of this comparison. Then there’s the tricky case of “Sky High.” “Sky High” was Jessee’s lone songwriting contribution to Ben Folds Five’s 2012 album The Sound of the Life of the Mind. It was also among the best songs on the record and Jessee is absolutely justified in rerecording it for Hotel Lights. It’s once again among the best songs here (check that, it’s the best), with a beautiful, sad melody in both the verses and the chorus that’s sticky enough to make you want to sing along. And the band does some appropriate rearranging, replacing Folds’ piano part with acoustic, electric, and pedal steel guitars. It gives the song a slightly less polished feel and it’s a worthwhile alternate take. But his version of “Sky High” shows exactly why he is relegated to backing vocals in Ben Folds Five, even when they perform the handful of songs that Jessee wrote. Folds likely isn’t on anybody’s list of the world’s best singers, but his singing has body and expressiveness. Jessee is an adequate singer and his low-key style casts his singing in a positive light for Hotel Lights. Except in this direct comparison, where he ends up sounding thin and a bit frail.
The other highlights on Get Your Hand in My Hand occur when the band stretches out a bit. The five-minute plus “We’re Really Gonna Do It” feels like a complete narrative, and its gently rolling guitar line and organ accompaniment keep the song interesting, as do its strong pre-chorus and chorus. Album closer “You Don’t Care” comes close to the six-minute mark, but it has a solid synth string hook and an effective slow build as more and more instruments join the song.
Jessee clearly has the songwriting chops to occasionally create a legitimately great song, but he often seems to settle for good enough. That makes Get Your Hand in Mine an easy album to listen to, but the general lack of variety in style and tempo ensures that the songs start to become background noise if one isn’t focused wholly on the music. There ends up being just enough strong material to make Get Your Hand in My Hand worth a recommendation, but it feels like the album also inadvertently makes the case for why Hotel Lights has been toiling in obscurity for so long.