The Motel Life - Retreat
Record Label: Unsigned
Release Date: June 1, 2010
In the grand scheme of things, it's still an achievement that any DIY band is able to make it in this day & age of album leaks and short attentions spans. While musical fads will continue to come and go as quickly as the impatient youth identifies with them, they will then proceed to find solace in something else not long after. Bands like the Motel Life are the sort of bands you adapt to after your ears can no longer settle upon synth-laden electro-pop or quadruple-bass drum metal thrashing any longer. As a listener, we tend to go where our stimulus is most warranted, and nothing tickles the sense quite like a pleasant melody. That's why pop music continues to exist -- it's not difficult to understand why we choose melody over, say, wild experimentation that cause our sense to run amok.
The Motel Life's second full-length is a gorgeous lesson in growth. The band has improved their performances all across the board, because like you young listener, they are developing their ears for what works and ditching what requires an exploration for solace. Retreat is rich with honesty & melody, albeit not as blatant "pop" as many acts tend to be these days. In many ways, vocalist Michael Escanuelas sounds less raw here and more like William Beckett on his best day. The production (courtesy of David Trautz, who helmed the board on their debut) suits him, and allows the band to go for a genuine approach by recording like all bands should: live in-studio. Punched up with drums and feedback, "Wooden Hands" isn't your typical introductory track and "How Things Go" is indie rock heaven; the band "rocks out" as best they know how, and Escanuelas is as self-depricating as he is critical of those who are complacent without going too far. "God Loves" also benefits from a swift vocal performance, and leads into a daring one-two punch of indie pop beauty with "Second Place" and "Writing a Book," which are the rhythmic backbones to this feast of a record. Laden with religious imagery, tales of family & friends and some truly gut-wrenchingly poignant confessions, the lyrics aren't as cut-and-dry as some pop bands tend to be. The emotions aren't worn on the sleeve, and the band insists the listener consider all elements on display. Now granted, at first, everything comes off a little melancholy, but looking deeper at the record (especially in comparison with their debut), it's obvious the band is more inclined to parlay their adept musical talents into something that is going to be able to last.
Two newcomers join the band this time around, in guitarist Al Hernandez and bassist Ray Markel, and going alongside Nick Camancho's quite excellent work on the kit (check out "Second Place" and "Writing a Book") and Judcody Limon's etheral chords, the band comes together as a unification of possibilities; the possibility that pop music doesn't have to be pretentious or watered down. As I said in my review of their previous effort, the comparison to As Tall As Lions still stands, particularly in the band's evolution. While nothing here is ever as instantly-catchy as The Academy Is' best album, Almost Here, Retreat bares some resemblance to that record's earnest appraoch to the world as both musicians and young men. "Sunday School" is a bit off-key and staggers from Escanuelas subpar ability to sing at such a slow, warbly pace, however the song excells in the message about discovering the truth with age, and realizing there are never any concrete answers to anything life sends your way. The title track is a tad uneasy in its first minute-and-a-half or so, but the last few minutes make up for it as a grand finale. "Second Place" (more about this song later) is a nice segue into "Writing a Book," which is better than any song Adam Lazarra could ever write about losing a friend, a brother, whatever you want to call it. "You're an asshole, plain and simple." Isn't that really all that needs to be said without cutting corners and trying to "cleverly" hint at something requiring interpretation? Nope, and it's pretty clear Escanuelas doesn't want to sit there and fool around either.
The Motel Life isn't here to impress you with the measure of their melody-to-hook ratio; the band is trying to make music in a way that offers something to people who enjoy the pleasantries a solid melody has to offer without selling themselves hort to get it. A remarkable achievement is finding their own rhythm (compared to their debut, it's much harder to find a ton of good comparisons here), the Motel Life continue to develop a sincere ability to tackle the travesties of pop music in this modern age, and breath some fresh life into them without ever coming across as trite, bland or pithy. "Maybe it's time to put your dreams aside and face reality," Escanuelas chimes in a somewhat ironic tone on "Second Place," a song that avoids typical fashion and sets a new course in direction for what others might request these gentlemen do. Sure, it might sound cliche at first, but as the bands response to those in their lives that don't necessarily believe in them, it's an astute reminder that this isn't just a band: these are five young guys who are trying their best to make something out of themselves the best they know how. This journey isn't quite that simple, and if the Motel Life plan on stopping what they're doing now, there will be plenty of promise flushed away. "We can't stop dreaming" are the last words you hear as it comes to a close. If that isn't a clear indication that this might not even be the band's best attempt, then what is? Stay for the main event, but for now, preview the comming attractions for what is sure to be something worth being excited over. Give the album an honest listen; see for yourself how great pop music can still be. After experiencing Retreat, there won't be any going back.