People (i.e., music critics) have been putting the ‘alt-’ or ‘indie-’ prefix in front of pretty much every genre of music these days, and while some work well (‘alt-country’, ‘indietronica’), others really don’t (‘alt-hip-hop’ – is that just liberal or not money-making hip-hop?). ‘Alt-jam’ has been a prefix-subject that people have been especially eager to use, as jam music often takes place out of the mainstream of the music industry, alternative & jam bands are playing each others festivals more & more, and hipsters need an ‘alt’ label to excuse liking some jam music. However, ‘jam’ is almost as amorphous a label as ‘alt’, especially on record (it comes out a lot clearer live, especially at said jam band festivals), making the term ‘alt-jam’ almost meaningless. But there is such a thing, and it can be done well, as shown by Motel Motel on The Big Island.
The Brooklyn outfit has some of the hallmarks of a jam band (pedal guitar from Erik Gundell; affected twang vocals from singer/bassist Eric Engel), and some of an indie band (their youth; being from Brooklyn), and the two styles did merge on their New Denver EP – but have done so better on full-length debut The Big Island. The group employs an up-processional twang on such pieces as "Thunderhead", "Keauhou", "Damietta" and "Cowboy" (like New Denver, no Motel Motel song has a title more than two words long). Sometimes the signature sound can sound the same, track-to-track (particularly the Engel’s choruses to "Keauhou", "Damietta" & "Cowboy"), but the band wisely spreads the pieces out on Island. Engel’s vocals also take some getting used to – the first time anyone hears him, they could easily think his voice is over-affected – but really works once you do.
This isn’t all Motel Motel do on The Big Island. There’s more of a relaxed nature to "Ocean" and "Kaimanu", and a wistful-largeness to "Wolf Road" – even a strings and piano instrumental in "Bask In", plus a sub-minute intro to the record with "Montana". But it’s the band’s way with harmony that is the other primary weapon, on quieter pieces such as "Helena, MT", "Sailor", and "Eli", with "Sailor" taking it furthest & greatest – Motel Motel can do this, too.
In late 2009, Motel Motel were lucky enough to travel to Egypt on a State Department-sponsored musical goodwill mission, widening the band’s vistas (and presumably providing the semi-hidden, post-fifty seconds of silence, recorded material on closer "Port Said"). The Big Sky State aside, Motel Motel eschew the Americana song titles of New Denver, and the band wisely did not go down the Americana route of mixing alt & jam – not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the group is much more of a singular standout as the ‘alt-jam’ act they’ve become on their Big Island.
MP3 Stream: "Cowboy"