The Hotel Alexis provides a comfortable resting place, but you don’t go there for vacation. Instead, you stop in on your way back from a funeral; especially late in the fall and only if you’re by yourself. In the movie version, the average filmmaker gets high overhead and captures you driving across a flat state. Before you reach the hotel, owner Sidney Alexis’s music comes to you and helps you dig in to your melancholy.
Alexis, who kicked around a bit before deciding he needed his own project (and his own label), lived throughout the US, picking up oils and pastels here and there, but when he finally settled in New Hampshire, all he found in his canvas were some charcoals and a dab of burnt sienna. He drew a picture of a pedal steel guitar and then played it on his debut album, The Shining Example Is Lying on the Floor.
It’s that pedal steel that everyone’s been talking about, but the real strength of Alexis’s music lies in his arrangements. He and his band never present a guitar show, but the steel shows up in comfortable places, drawing out a mood, or twisting through a song’s steady plod. Using the instruments of Americana, the group works around post-rock ideas about structure and pacing. The Shining Example doesn’t lure you in with hooks, but with atmospheres and tones.
Those tones tend to wind back to a deep sadness, but Alexis holds depression at bay. He offers autumnal images, but he sings with a voice that suggests a reserve of strength. Occasionally, as on “O K”, the music breaks through to accompany that voice with optimism. This track begins with ambient keys before developing the slightest melody. Alexis sings as though wounded: “It’s the best that I can do… I just want to say / ‘I can be with you now'”. You can believe him or not, but you can’t doubt that, as he sings, he believes it. We don’t know if he’s made a recovery from the hurt he’s caused himself and others, but we can feel that he’s on his way.
As well-structured and affecting as this album can be, it suffers from a bit of sameness. The hopeful lyrics on “O K” echo the opening track’s “I wanna bask in your shadow” [just a quick break: using “bask” here is either a clever shift to the literal definition, or a alienating snap from common usage — you’ll have to decide for yourself], but more than functioning as a thematic reminder, these lyrics show the lack of change throughout the disc. With too few highs, The Shining Example rides its depths just a little too long, so that they no longer become depths, but just status quo. That sunken level allows the mellow smile of “O K” to provide uplift, but it doesn’t provide enough surface friction for a listener to latch on to.
That flat valley of emotion, while beautifully orchestrated and wonderfully performed, doesn’t sustain itself for the course of an album. By placing “Comeback Kid” second, Alexis follows the High Fidelity rule of mix-making (taking it up a notch with the second song), but wastes one of his few upbeat numbers before we need a lift. The album, while not overlong, could benefit from either a chopped song or two or from some re-sequencing.
It’s frustrating, because The Shining Example does come close. Alexis clearly understands how to develop his moods — er, mood — but he’s not quite where he could be in designing a full-length album. I’ll take this one for its individual moments (and in case I ever end up soundtracking a film), but I’m not ready to boost it up to the level of something I would automatically give for a gift. Unless a sad friend told me she was driving out west.