Hotel Lights and Heavenly Horrors
This Column Brought to You By the Letter H

We’re in the August doldrums right now, which means there isn’t much to talk about these days. New music is still coming out, but the real set-your-world-on-fire albums will not hit shelves for another few weeks. Between September and October, I plan to pick up about 45 new albums, and a few box sets just for good measure. It’s gonna be a great month.

But in August, I think I’ve bought eight or so new records, and I haven’t been bowled over by any of them. I’m still playing the Josh Garrels album more regularly than anything new I’ve brought home recently, and I’m more excited by sneak previews and first singles from upcoming albums than I am by whole discs I’ve already plunked down money for.

So what to do? Well, next week I’ll talk about some of that upcoming stuff, but this week, I have a trio of mediocre-to-decent records to plow through. I’ll try to keep this short, since I’m only really going to recommend one of them, but keep reminding yourself that better things are coming.

Oh, and this week’s column is brought to you by the letter H.

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I want to like Hotel Lights.

Mainly because of the band’s pedigree: it’s the solo project of Darren Jessee, who for eight years or so was the drummer for Ben Folds Five. He wrote some tremendous songs while with that band, including “Magic,” an absolute standout on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. His drum work with BFF was extraordinary – just listen to “Narcolepsy” for an indication of how good he is. I like Darren a great deal.

But I don’t really like Hotel Lights.

Why not? Well, two reasons, really: Jessee has a weak voice, and he writes weak songs. Both issues plague Girl Graffiti, his third album as Hotel Lights, and his fullest and meatiest production yet. He’s got a good band behind him, including Alan Weatherhead on guitars, Zeke Hutchins on drums and Jay Brown on bass, and several songs feature string and horn sections. The whole thing has a robust, rootsy feel to it, and just based on that, I really ought to like it.

But none of these songs strike me. The closest one comes to burrowing under my skin is “Super 8mm,” with its pretty piano figure, but there isn’t a memorable melody in the bunch. Last time out, on 2008’s Firecracker People, Jessee managed a couple of strong tunes, including the title track. This time? I’ve heard Girl Graffiti three times, and I don’t remember much of it. The goofy ones (“Dave Sharkey to the Dance Floor,” “All My Asshole Friends”) are the ones that stick out, but they’re nothing to shout about either.

Jessee’s voice sounds better when framed by all the jangling guitars and other racket he conjures on this album, but it’s still hesitant, hovering around the notes instead of landing on them. I know Jessee can sing backup – his harmonies with BFF were terrific – but as a lead singer, he still needs practice. Between that and the simplistic, hook-free songs, I’m afraid Hotel Lights just comes off a bit amateur to me. I’ll keep buying Jessee’s stuff, because I want to support him. I just hope he gets better at this.

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Mister Heavenly is one of those wretched supergroups.

You know what I mean. A supergroup is a band made up of members of other bands, coming together in a kind of Marvel Team-Up wish fulfillment, as if musical chemistry were a math equation. “Surely if we put this great guitarist together with this great drummer and this great singer, we’ll have the world’s best band!” Cue the first Damn Yankees album.

In Mister Heavenly’s case, it’s hard to apply the supergroup moniker, since very few people will know the bands these guys usually call home. Nick Thorburn is the mastermind behind the Unicorns and Islands (those are two separate bands), Ryan Kattner usually goes by Honus Honus when he plays in Man Man, and Joe Plummer is the group celebrity – he’s the drummer for Modest Mouse. This is the kind of collaboration that gets Pitchfork writers all weak in the knees, but doesn’t mean much for 90 percent of the population.

But even if you’re not familiar with the source bands, Mister Heavenly’s debut album, Out of Love, is worth a listen. It takes a 1950s approach to indie rock, with clean, reverbed guitar sitting atop do-wop melodies and harmonies. “Charlyne” is a good example – this could be a Buddy Holly song, and its pounding piano and nifty guitar accents are charming in the extreme. There’s a romance to this music that is only slightly undercut by Thorburn’s lyrics, which look askance at love and happiness.

Check out “Hold My Hand,” an innocent-sounding ditty that turns dark in its second verse: “Don’t try to leave, feral dogs have us surrounded, the gates are locked, don’t try to knock, don’t bother pounding, hold my hand, maybe that will help you…” All this while the harmonies “whoo-oo-oo” behind Thorburn, and the pianos pound out a ‘50s dance rhythm. It’s deceptive, and very cool.

On the next track, the band invents a new form of music – “Doom Wop” is like Black Sabbath playing Frankie Valli. Like much of Out of Love, it’s interesting enough on first listen to warrant a second, and a third. I’m not sure if Mister Heavenly is a band or a one-off project, but either way, it’s a clever and fun little record. exposing the darkness behind this gently swaying music. Check it out.

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A while back, I mentioned my Third Album Theory. Essentially, I believe, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to either dismiss or define a band until their third record. The debut tells you who they think they are, the second what they believe others want from them, and the third where they think they can go. Three albums is enough to chart a progression, and if there isn’t one (hello, Franz Ferdinand), it’s enough to know whether you want to give up.

All that said, I think you’d need to go back to Radiohead to find an arc of improvement over three albums like the Horrors have delivered. From Southend on Sea, in England, the Horrors began as a gothic punk trash experiment, but have grown into a fine, dreamy pop band. Listening to their very good new album, Skying, it’s hard to remember just how awful this band’s first offerings were. On both their self-titled EP and their full-length debut, Strange House, the Horrors worked under “hilarious” fake names, covered Screaming Lord Sutch, and delivered some of the most unlistenable “scary” garage rock you’ve ever heard.

Hell, Strange House was subtitled Psychotic Sounds for Freaks and Weirdos, which just underlines how lame it is.

But 2009’s Primary Colours was a complete, radical shift. The band incorporated synthesizers and new wave influences, essentially turning into Echo and the Bunnymen in places, and suddenly began taking their work seriously. I didn’t hear it at the time, but the closing track, “Sea Within a Sea,” is one of the most interesting songs of that year. There were stumbles, most notably “New Ice Age,” which sounds like a holdover from the first album sessions. But Primary Colours was a huge leap forward.

Skying continues down the same path, but is more self-assured, more nimble. There is no trace here of the band the Horrors once were. Most of the songs here, particularly in the more straightforward first half, could fit nicely onto college rock stations in the ‘80s, between the Psychedelic Furs and Simple Minds. Songs have big beats, throbbing bass lines, soaring vocals, glittering synthesizers, and guitars that shimmer and then explode at a moment’s notice. It’s grand, grandiose stuff.

As much as I like the first half, particularly the sweeping “Dive In,” it’s the second that really gets me. “Still Life” is absolutely wonderful, sounding like it’s in search of a generation-defining John Hughes movie to perfectly score. “Moving Further Away” is magnificent, its circular synths looping back upon themselves again and again, its chorus rising up like a gentle wave, its mood subtly shifting over eight and a half solid minutes of bliss.

And closer “Oceans Burning” is the record’s highlight. (One thing you can say for the Horrors, they know how to end an album.) It starts off at a laconic whisper, but around the five-minute mark, it erupts into sheets of noise supporting a soaring vocal. It ends abruptly, but fittingly. Seriously, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard a band grow by such leaps and bounds. If they can keep this up, the Horrors could soon be one of the most interesting bands in the world.

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And that’ll do it. Next week, some random ruminations. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.