Review ·

One Star Hotel's full-length self-titled debut is a little-known wonder, hidden deep in Philadelphia's musty corners. The album plays as such, like a record that a collector purchased and shelved after one listen, only to discover its mild beauty after returning to it on a whim. Mild is a convenient and brief description for the four piece's charm; it's the album's mildness that draws the listener in.

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Vocalist/songwriter Steve Yutzy-Burkey uses the first track, "Gravity Can't Explain," to effectively recount tales of the "fallen friend," whose fall from grace is nearly impossible to explain. The melody, introduced by a somber organ and Yutzy-Burkey's lazy vocals, borrows only slightly from "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," but the chorus, as saddening as it is, could easily be adopted as a pint-raising barroom anthem. A somewhat desperate tone defines the verse portions, but the chorus obscures the "fallen friend's tale" by referencing an even worse predicament. Yutzy-Burkey cleverly pits people who are down on their luck against those who "scream because nothing ever happens to them." These somber sing-along moments characterize the album, but plenty of space is left for more upbeat numbers.

A dab of British 1960s flavor creeps in on "Downtown." Yutzy-Burkey's whine almost completely blurs his words here, but what is audible is a very appealing narration of the lights and sounds of downtown. It's an upbeat "Waterloo Sunset," a portrait of a gent on his green couch being beckoned out into the city streets by the lights and buzz outside. The only album track to boast a tasteful brass arrangement, "Downtown" combines fuzzed-out guitars and colorful backup harmonies while delivering a chorus as catchy as the album's opener. This speedy sweetness can be heard on the track preceding it as well, "Superheated Coils." Quite naturally, One Star Hotel's somberness returns on the fifth track, "Love Scene Gone Wrong."

The band's plethora of musical influences shines reluctantly through here also, as "Love Scene Gone Wrong" is Music from Big Pink's grandiosity and a tasteful homage to the band's contemporaries in alt-country that have gained popularity over the past few years. But One Star Hotel reminds the listener in "Love Scene" that it is not to be brushed off as one of these alt-country outfits; the band is drawing from more than Neil Young and Gram Parsons. The tale of the broken-hearted is spun in such a way on this number that the center of the verse doesn't even find near-comfort in his "favorite chair" in front of the television. Alas, the listener is reminded just how lousy a turn love can take, and these bare vocal and acoustic pitfalls are matched against full drums, bass and swelling organ instrumental shifts in a possible attempt to muddy the miserable moments in the song's subject matter.

In the midst of Philadelphia's boring offerings, some bands are making a name for themselves and hopefully the city. One Star Hotel is one such gem, often presenting a dreamy landscape of sleepy vocals decorated with an organ and tasteful guitar work. Their sketches of labor, fallen lovesick characters and cityscapes are sincere and likable. The band's near-magical presentation in "Gravity Can't Explain" and four-star centerpiece "Sunburn" are perfect examples of just how much production and time went into this record, and are evident at first listen, not only after the revisit. The question here lies not in what makes a listener revisit this record, but why it was shelved in the first place.

- 2003

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