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You've got to wonder what was going through Darren Jessee's mind while he spent six years playing drums for Ben Folds Five — Folds may have a knack for writing a witty pop tune, but Firecracker People, the second album from Jessee's subsequent project ,Hotel Lights, makes it clear that Darren had far more subtle and cerebral sounds lurking within his heart. Jessee and producer/multi-instrumentalist Alan Weatherhead have filled Firecracker People with spectral musical textures and melodies that sound subtly heartbroken even when they carry silky smooth hooks; like a friendlier version of Chappaquiddick Skyline fused with Ron Sexsmith's bruised but hopeful songwriting style, Hotel Lights deliver graceful sounds that speak of the dark night of the soul without entirely giving in to despair. Jessee's soft, burnished whisper of a voice is certainly the right instrument for these tunes, and between Jessee and Weatherhead, a small army of keyboards and guitars gives these songs their musical flesh and blood, and it's difficult at times to imagine that an album which sounds this rich was created by a mere four people (bassist Jay Brown and drummer Zeke Hutchins, former members of Tift Merritt's road band, are relatively recent additions to Hotel Lights but hold down the rhythm with unobtrusive skill on these sessions). The craft of Firecracker People is nothing short of superb, though it lacks the dynamics to make its 47 minutes as compelling as they could be; the album's gentle midtempo feel is a bit like a warm bath that feels soothing at first but gets a bit tepid with time, and this music could use some more peaks and valleys for the sake of texture. But that doesn't change the fact Jessee writes fine songs, and he and Weatherhead know how to make them come to life in the studio; if consistency is the flaw of Firecracker People, it also means this album doesn't have a single dud track and it sounds great from first note to last.
Bar/None Records released Hotel Lights’ self-titled debut in 2006. Essentially Darren Jessee’s solo debut (which initially came out in 2004), it garnered rave reviews for its understated elegance, lyrical brilliance, and Jessee’s warm, Will Oldham-esque vocal style. 2006 also saw the release of the Goodnightgoodmorning EP. Now, 2008 brings a second full-length from Hotel Lights. Firecracker People has Jessee again working with producer/guitarist Alan Weatherhead (Sparklehorse, Camper van Beethoven). They are joined by drummer Zeke Hutchins and bass player Jay Brown, both from Tift Merritt’s band.
As tight and effortlessly impressive as this musical line-up is, it’s the songwriting that is the true marvel here. “Blue Always Finds Me” opens the album with a swelling, slow-burner accented with an aching pedal steel guitar. “And it all lays in wait to come to me / Stars fall asleep and smother me / I go far away / Blue always finds me / Days go by slow / Years just fade away”, Jessee laments. It’s a stunning start. “Dream State Flying” is an equally affecting track, but more energetic with its insistent but spare strumming that breaks into full band accompaniment and soars into the sky at full speed. “Down” is a lush, pop piece with soft harmonies, while “Flicker in My Eye” is a hushed and stark heartbeat that rises and falls, flowing like breathing.
The center of the album may be the next two tracks. “Amelia Bright”, a fan favorite from Jessee’s days with Ben Folds Five, is presented here for the first time as a studio recording. It’s gorgeous. Jessee says this particular arrangement was inspired by the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday”, which is not as readily apparent as Tim Buckley’s backing vocals. Buckley also graces the title track. But he’s not so noticeable because “Firecracker People” showcases Jessee’s own striking voice as he sings, “I control what my heart thinks / Or is it just like gunpowder? / No one is listening / Just taking what they’re given / That will never be me / We’re all firecracker people / Going off all the time.” It’s a lovely ballad that again recalls Ben Folds Five.
“Norina” switches gears a bit, with a darkly upbeat, radio-friendly hook and an atmosphere that’s a little reminiscent of the Church. “Wedding Day” reverses again; it’s a somber meditation that instrumentally echoes its lyric about watching the rain rush down. “Chemical Clouds” continues the somber tone. Jessee’s imagery and delivery wrap around the listener with the warmth of a familiar addiction. This is the sort of song one wants to get lost in like a painfully sweet memory of love. Likewise, “Nobody Let You Down” and “Your Choices” pull you into the depths of Jessee’s stories and string you along on the radiant quality of his voice.
“Run Away Happy” (co-written by Jesse Benton) closes Firecracker People in a similarly stunning manner as it began. This ballad is all the more magnificent for its seeming simplicity. It’s like a snapshot that, though only glanced at, burns the image indelibly in your mind. In fact, Hotel Lights and the album as a whole have a lot of qualities in common with this song. They are deceptively quiet and unassuming, yet have the capacity to steal a way into your soul.
Artist/Band: Hotel Lights
Album: Firecracker People
Release Date: 2008
Genre: Indiepop, Altrock, FolkRock
Bitrate: VBR --alt-preset extreme