There is no better description of the sound on Motel Sundown’s debut album than that of their own: “layered acoustics”. They sum up perfectly in two words the sumptuous blend of uncomplicated yet sophisticated that makes ‘If You Were Listening’ a rich easy listening experience. It is a delight to get lost in their mix of the traditional and contemporary, straddling a border between Celtic folk, Appalachian country, and British rock so naturally as to create something almost unique. There are hints of First Aid Kit, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and the Ward Thomas of the ‘Cartwheels’ era, but also unapologetic nods to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac. As such, their music is subtly varied whilst riding a distinct Americana wave.
Opening track ‘Brake Lights’ is the first to construct a multitude of simple guitar riffs in such a way as to create a sufficiently-filling musical sandwich. It overawes the listener with a dreaminess that then turns to nostalgia with second track ‘Perfect Eyes’. The pedal steel comes to the fore here in a composition that includes the odd tinkle of piano keys and plenty of soft drumbeats with which to wrap the listener in. This is before sinking further into the trio’s beautiful three-part harmonies on ‘Cassie’, an Irish folk-like song made modern by the presence of a 12-string Rickenbacker which itself harks back to 1960s rock.
This inability to nail down a fixed identity for the Liverpool-based band continues with ‘The Room’, a country-folk number that includes a classic rock guitar solo in its middle, and ‘One More for the Road’, with its Americana sound containing some light pop touches to flesh out its upbeat tone. These two songs bookend the title track, ‘If You Were Listening’, which is an intimate, soulful affair that speaks most purely to the band’s inspirations and influences. Meanwhile, ‘Shopping’ diverts into another corner of their repertoire, Rob Johnson taking a rare foray into lead vocals as Naomi and Karen provide the backing on a gently-swaying blues-rock production with a melt-in-the-mouth guitar solo towards its end.
‘Night Owl’ feels like a modern folk song that demonstrates the band’s collaborative approach to songwriting before ‘Days are Gone’ turns towards a fuller sound, drawing from a range of musical elements to again present a track that is ill-defined but rich in texture. ‘Mexico’ is another that refuses to contain Motel Sundown in a single generic box. Its Latin-themed percussion combines with a smooth folk-rock groove which is enhanced further by some of the best lyrics on the album to make a fascinating song that deserves repeated listening. As does the final track ‘Wild Atlantic Way’. Named after the coastal route on the West of Ireland, it fits the Irish-lilt of Karen and Naomi’s voices well whilst capturing something of the bluegrass sound of Alison Krauss & Union Station who are something of an inspiration. It is the perfect song on which to end an album that is full of delights.
Originally written for and published on Belles & Gals on 17th September 2022.
Featured Image (C) Motel Sundown