If Gang of Four had met and reproduced with My Bloody Valentine, and if their super fucked-up kids had been raised on The Beatles and Guided By Voices and had managed to live long enough without killing themselves to make a record, the result might sound a lot like Hotel St. George. Their music is heavily guitar-based with nouveau punk vocals, slick instrumental production that pays homage to the 70s DIY sound without quite emulating it, and enough harmonic complexity to set up and execute some brilliant hooks. There’s really nothing to dislike here, and there’s a whole lot to merit repeat listens. But on first contact, Hotel St. George does little to grab and secure its listenership. I put it on, thought, “this is pretty good,” and went back to listening to Queensryche. City Boy Lemon, their latest LP release, is a grower not a show-er, and I’ve come back to it again and again over the past couple weeks with an eager ear to the melodic contour of their songs and the pure joy of dancing around in my underwear while Matt Binder sings “I always dream of sex, I always dream of death, it’s always on my mind, it’s always on my mind.” Cute stuff. In sum, I’ve decided that I really like this band, and I’d like to share them with you guys.
They came to be over Thanksgiving 2008, when bassist/guitarist Erik Visnyak sat down at singer/guitarist Matt Binder’s borrowed Wurlitzer piano and immediately proceeded to spill a glass of red wine on the poor creature. At this point, there were really only two things they could have done: fight to the death, or form a band. They chose the latter, bringing Brian Leader in on drums and Brian Reilly on guitar. In a mere two months their first EP Yippee!!! came to be, and its modestly penned punk ditties earned the band two nominations at the San Diego Music Awards. Hotel St. George’s second release, Hundreds & Thousands, primarily featured Binder’s more subtle and complex songwriting, which subsequently isolated their original fanbase of punk fans while garnering a new listenership amongst the indie crowd. Their next record, City Boy Lemon, split the difference between the two previous albums and offers sophistication without sacrificing an overarching punk aesthetic. Their next album promises to be a keyboard-based endeavor, which is no doubt an attempt to resolve some deep and pervasive tension regarding the Wurlitzer incident. I suppose making an album is, in fact, marginally cheaper than extended group therapy.
The two songs offered up on the 7-inch turntable today are “Apples & Pears” and “Island Man,” the first track hearkening back to the band’s roots in 70s punk and the second hinting at 2010’s pop keyboard epic Fun Shine Line. I love all my children equally, but if someone put a gun to my head and asked me to pick one song to use as the A-side on some imaginary “Best of Ampeater” 7-inch, “Apples & Pears” would immediately come to mind. It mellows out after the first 14 seconds or so, but those first 14 seconds, man, pure gold. Never underestimate the power of a repeated ascending guitar lick–this song doesn’t so much start as it does launch. Actually, that’s a great analogy for what the song actually does. Once the intro riff rockets cut out, the song settles in comfortable orbit around Matt Binder’s delicious (though at times borderline crooning) punk vocals. Every time I wonder whether the tune’s leveled out for good, that guitar riff comes back in and propels it to greater heights. Hotel St. George has mastered the manipulation of tension and delayed gratification that makes for a truly compelling song, and “Apples & Pears” is a perfect example.
If A-side “Apples & Pears” is a look back at the classic punk aesthetic that formed the basis of Hotel St. George’s music up until City Boy Lemon, B-side “Island Man” has a forward-looking indie vibe that hints at even greater things to come. That said, while their punk stylings are rock solid and ingeniously crafted, their indie chops are less perfectly developed. After a short vocal intro, the song lopes along for a couple seconds until it slams us with a pop chorus of “bop bop ba da, ba ba bada da”. This is a great maneuver, but the killer thing about “Island Man” is that it’s preciously short, clocking in at 2:30, and the “bops” only show up twice in the whole song. The solution? Loop that shit. You know that little repeat(1) button on your iPod? I use that a lot with this guy–usually 3 or 4 times does me good. “Island Man” gives us a peculiar marriage in a punk-length tune with pop features, and I feel like some of the melodic ideas could use a little bit more room to breathe and expand, or hell, just repeat a couple times. That’s not to say that the pop features are themselves lacking in some way (in fact that’s not at all the case, they’re brilliant), but I nevertheless can’t wait to hear how this sound evolves and matures on Fun Shine Line. Matt Binder’s voice does something unique on these tunes–while his punk-oriented vocals are a nod to his predecessors, he shows some individual character in the pop tunes that’s apart from any immediate influence. This is where Binder as Binder shines through, and it’s a good indication of Hotel St. George’s potential for growth as we race towards 2010 and the “new” Hotel St. George. Godspeed boys.