Andy Stochansky's music never made it out of my scorched earth break-up. For the longest time, he inhabited the ruined space of everything that ever touched the life of my ex in the suppurating wasteland of former-lover infidels. That was years ago, and I still remember being tapped out on ketamine listening to his debut, 1995's While You Slept. If you've never heard it, get a copy; it's a record exotically deep, profoundly beautiful, and deftly inexplicable in its genre crashing careen through space opera, Indian music, and wild path pop. While You Slept was the milk-fed savant of a musician untethered from category and headlong into his own genius. That was then, during the time when he was identified less frequently by his name and more frequently as Ani DiFranco's drummer. (Someone who will remain in the aforementioned wasteland for purely aesthetic reasons.) Five Star Motel finds Stochansky revving his celestial pipes for a shot at heavy rotation and a fuzzy little box of pop stardom.
"Stutter" kicks things off and sounds like a forgotten single from U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind. In fact, although Stochansky's voice has a cleaner ascent than Bono, on many tracks their falsetto croons are indistinguishable. None of this is bad, of course, and "Stutter" is one of those stunning pop songs that's almost an aria. It holds one of those emotion-drenched choruses that all but the heartless will belt out in the semi-privacy of their work commutes.
With While You Slept long behind him, it seems like Stochansky aimed for a much simpler, more conventional guitar pop album. That's hardly a crime against nature, but it's certainly a decision likely to leave admirers wondering why he's given up his borderless skew for a grab-bag of dingy singer-songerwriter pap. My issue with this kind of music revolves around that fact it's a genre where everyone fancies themselves to be Flannery O'Connor. Take "Paris", as a case in point. It's a song about a waitress, her customers, her daydreams and a street vendor's bouquet of other tidbits of miscellany he probably made up about her over his vegetarian breakfast. I'm not trying to be a bitch (it's genetic) but I think that I'm not of the "everything you see is a song" school of songwriting. That's all right, Hitler couldn't paint and Ethan Hawke isn't really a novelist.
By the time "Wedding Song" slug-trailed into my speakers, I suddenly realized that most of the songs on the record seemed to be portraits of various "dark-eyed girls" or women observed from afar or through fantasy. Then I remembered the day I realized that all of Melissa Etheridge's songs seem to be about people reluctant to love her back. "Does anyone else realize that she's a stalker," I thought to myself. I can't say the same about Stochansky, but I can say that the album could have benefited from a little more breadth than his collection of park bench chick poetry. The song "22 Steps" follows the same stranger-on-a-pedestal routine over a floundering spate of horns and an obsessive-compulsive chorus about how many steps it takes to get to the door of the girl he's never met. I have two words for you: Restraining order.
Exhausted. If you weren't spinally grated for the first several songs, "Miss USA"'s yearny pop hook structure and a chorus of "Did you really think she was Miss USA" will kill you. This borders on being a castrated Third Eye Blind anthem though it gets grudging points for being a song that sounds like it's about a gay daughter. Such is the Faustian bargain of casting your lot with the vagaries of pop whoredom. The album's first single, "Wonderful" throws a few "wah wah wahs" into the typically bland college rock brew and comes out on the bad side of forgettable. Can I just ask, how many girls have cherry trees that they sit under?
A few songs on Five Star Motel provide a simple little stage for the Jeff Buckley tenderness in Stochansky's range. "Hymn" sounds like a music box lullaby. The top-forty shellac is stripped away and all that is left is his lilting melody, scratchy strings, and a mid-song shift into some great percussion. "Mavis said . . . " brings another saving grace, a touching piano-fed prayer with great lyrics like "When I meet God, I'll ask him nicely, could he give the world amnesia". But finding these tracks in a sargasso sea of half-assed adult contemporary swiss requires more endurance than can be reasonably be expected of any listener.
Who knows how Five Star Hotel will play out? It might score him a single with the John Mayer/David Gray set, but who wants to make lite rock for the Chai drinkers who still feel bad about playing with themselves? This is one of those times that I'm forced to usher out the adjective "serviceable" because no other word captures vanilla cardboard quite like it. Andy Stochansky will continue to make music worth listening to, even with a credible misstep onto the overdeveloped landscape of guitar pop. Let's just hope he goes back to doing his own thing and leaves the mediocrity to those who deserve to wallow in it.