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The Black Hotels

Franchised Motels

by Dave Durbach / 21.04.2011

A week before Andries Tatane was killed in Ficksburg, I spent a night at the Highlands Hotel next to the municipal offices where cops apparently took his life. Needless to say, angry black men and small-town hotels were already running through my mind when I got my hands on a CD by a band who have nothing to do with either, yet choose to call themselves the Black Hotels.

Police brutality aside, it’s not a bad name for a band, albeit one that hints at their rock-by-numbers approach, which goes something like this:

1. Choose your influences: This is easier than it sounds. Some bands you can’t go wrong with – those with timeless critical and commercial appeal. Others are so ubiquitous that you don’t even need to listen to them to sound like them. Look no further than the Smiths and the Strokes.

2. Think of a cool name, preferably starting with words like “the” or “black”, ideally both.

3. Add a keyboard player, no matter how superfluous his input. Give him big sunburns. Throw in a chick on bass. Make her sing, even if she can’t. You might just get you compared to the Pixies.

4. Hit the road. Gigs are the best form of promotion – a band just can’t sit and wait for the SABC or KFC to jump on board. And it doesn’t hurt if your lead singer is a full-time publicist.

5. Get in the studio and record an album. Then go back and do it again. Throw a party in a northern suburbs mall, invite your friends, invite the media, dish out free booze.

Follow these five easy steps and you’re sure to make your mark in SA rock!

For evidence, look no further than The Black Hotels. They recently dropped their new album, Honey Badger, at a packed Katzy’s in the mall-land of Rosebank. It follows 2009’s Sama-nominated Films For The Next Century. It’s catchy pop-rock with a fashionable indie bent, complete with lyrics of boyhood fantasies and suburban angst, catch-all imagery and banal-yet-profound puns that gloomy teens and die-hard rock fans love to hang their hats on. It’s clean, catchy and coherent – what more do you need, really?

The Black Hotels

The album opens with the dancy synth-pop of “Neon” with its repetitive refrain:
“You’re not supposed to show this / you’re not supposed to say this”. Other tracks are on a similar dance-rock tip, but heavier on the guitars and with less synth stylings – “In Your Hands”, “In My House” and “Motion” are upbeat but bog-standard rock numbers. “Goodbye Josh” is even worse, and reeks of middle-of-the-road, AOR stadium rock.

But there are plenty of winners here as well. “No Sign of Science” is a 5FM single if ever I heard one. Its lyrics pretty much sum up the music itself: “The same old story told again / the same beginning and the same end / we talk in circles / let us out!”

“Lines” slows things down, but ventures too far into murky Interpol territory when the band could just as easily have gone further back, to The Cars, for instance, for inspiration. Elsewhere, they’re not afraid to mix it up a little. “It Has Begun” is pared down acoustic folk. Bass player Lisa Campbell takes lead vox on “Kings” (monotonous indie pop with half-ass lyrics like “Don’t worry baby / I won’t let you fall down / We’ll fly together / I won’t let you fall down” and more successfully on “Forgotten Town”, a country-tinged number with a Breeders intro.

Best tracks for me are towards the end of the disc. “Rain Clouds” takes a risk by using violins instead of synths, stripping back some sonic layers to let frontman John Boyd’s lyrics shine through:
“You reach for something but you don’t know what it is…
Your guardian angel taking time, he is resting,
His cigarette is over, now he’s dressing.
You spend your hours in communion with the sunshine.
I got your number from a stranger in a train
You say your feeling are not feelings but transitions, to another state, a proud tradition.”

“White Car” kicks off with a rolling drum intro ala “My Sharona”, but soon drops to just another indie soundalike:
“Are these the mornings that we run from? Is this the silence that we came for?
Always a devil on our shoulder, getting thin as we get older.
In our eyes we’ve got secrets, on our backs we’ve got coded.
Always a devil on our shoulder, a letter drawn from our emotions
We’re in a line of deception, we got static on our radio
We got sirens in our headphones, a letter drawn from our emotions”

So there it is. The Black Hotels are proof that hard work can pay off. Here they’ve put out a CD of accomplished, radio-friendly hits, somewhere between the Black Keys and the Black Kids. The catchy indie synths and beats can appeal to the younger crowd, while the semi-smart lyrics and more timeless influences offer plenty for rock lovers on the wrong side of 30.

Honey Badger sees the Black Hotels cement their place in the local rock scene, and – hopefully – claim their rightful stake of a market that the Parlotones have no right to monopolise. Back in September 2010, the Black Hotels and the Parlotones opened for Irish rockers Ash on their poorly publicised SA tour (or was it the other way around?). In hindsight, it was the perfect trio. When it comes to brainless, catchy, agro-pop, Ash’s 1996 debut album 1977 is still one of my favourites, with hits like “Goldfinger”, “Girl from Mars”, “Kung Fu” and “Oh Yeah”. They put out another gem the next year, with A Life Less Ordinary, and it went downhill from there. 14 years later and they’re sharing a stage with their two biggest Safrican imitators. If you liked Ash, buy Honey Badger. If you haven’t heard 1977, get that instead.

And if you needed proof that the Black Hotels are anything other than skilled and savvy imitation artists, consider that even the cover art of Honey Badger closely resembles something from somewhere else – local hard rock act The Narrow’s 2005 “special edition” of their album Travellers.

The Narrow - Travellers

Will the Black Hotels knock the Parlotones off their rock-by-numbers throne? They’ll be opening for them on 30 April at Carnival City, along with the Arrows. You be the judge.

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RESPONSES (31)
  1. fuck off says:

    Dave Durbach’s smarter-than-thou knowitall approach to local nusic is starting to get on our nerves. Local bands and listeners do not need this smarmy and condescending approach to reviews, we only need honest and heartfelt appraisal. Check out work by Roger Young and Brandon Edmonds for a more constructive approach.

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  2. Chinless Fake Titted Ho says:

    i think you angered their ‘publicist’. this band are boring ripoff wankers … ooh … err … sorry i think the term is indie darlings, and jesus just how old is that geriatric vocalist … WTF?

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  3. twat says:

    Lazy review. Can’t tell if you love or hate them. Your comparisons are tired. Get a clue

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  4. Tim lester says:

    Never heard them. not interested. i can see a fake a mile away. and these guys are about as synthetic as it gets. good luck to em.

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  5. Yay more generic music says:

    I thought it was a pretty accurate synopsis of The Black Hotels.

    Some more monotone, predictable snore music for the ignorant masses. When will music listeners grow hungry for something original and intelligent? For now it seems that they’re content to simply swallow more generic adult contemporary like Dance you’re on Fire, The Parlotones, Prime Circle.

    BORING!

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  6. Uterusfound says:

    Dave ‘Dependable’ Durbach – just come outright and say it – The Black Hotels suck hard.

    meh.

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  7. Andy says:

    I actually quite dig the Black Hotels – I think they make more interesting music than the Parlotones, Prime Circle et al… but they defnitely slot in right alongside. Thing is, listening to all that music, there’s no indication, inclination or inspiration taken from our place and our time. There’s nothing rooting it down as South African. Just another tadpole in the generic VH1 globo-pop rock soup

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  8. dudie says:

    balah blah blah – ive just realized how ‘teenage’ this site actually is.

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  9. linemanbob says:

    so dude, do you like it or don’t you. your write by numbers approach is rather vague.

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  10. YeasterBunny says:

    I see via twitter that this review has upset a certain journalist at the M&G, you can read his versioned / polished turd at http://mg.co.za/article/2011-04-15-black-hotels-dish-up-sombre-beauty/ and make up your own minds (listening to the actual record also encouraged)

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  11. Chinless Fake Titted Ho...tel says:

    Who no like the Ho? I KAK on you too 😉 50 Dollar

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  12. Anonymous says:

    all I could think about when I saw the cover was the narrow.
    Another place holder, aural fodder, only so many spots on the shelves and someone has to full them.

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  13. Claire says:

    Well the album artwork does look similar in terms of plane layout and colour.

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  14. mounteng says:

    That particular M&G journalist has been living in Joburg for too long and is starting to fall for the shite that passes for music in that cesspool of minedumps. Time he got his ass back to Cape Town where they still know how to keep it real.

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  15. dudie says:

    No, well, black hotels have their thing going – it’s for an older crowd before the CT scene became neon; before it fried your once upon a time objective minds. A lot of people writing here have no solid reference-point on the band or the musicians in it. As far as I’m concerned they are a good band that can write a song – something that happens to be a major problem for a lot of musicians in this country. The message is also worth hearing – these musicians are not dumb-asses from what I’ve heard so far. This is the reason why I call this place teenage – a lot of people here need to learn how to be a little more acceptable of things that may still require them some time to understand.

    Mounteng – eat shit! When you guys in CT start ‘doing’ shit and working within a real economy, and not just tourism and student stupors, then you can have an opinion of what is real. The grit is in Jo-burg baby – we’re way beyond 2nd year philosophical discussions here; and way, way beyond phosphorus sticks up our our asses, tilted baseball hats and art director glasses.

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  16. Alistair Ian Smith says:

    Cops ‘apparently took his life’??

    Its either they did or didn’t. The mass media seems convinced they did. There are videos circulating that show that they did. Members of SAPS have appeared in court on charges of murder. The man certainly did not commit suicide.

    If you have any information at hand that can provide clarity or ensure that innocent men are not convicted on a charge they know nothing about, then it would be best to speak up!

    Or is Andries alive and well somewhere?

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  17. dudie says:

    poop on you all 🙂

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  18. mounteng says:

    @dudie. Name 5 half-decent bands to emerge from Shiteburg in the last 5 years without making us roll over laughing. Not so easy, is it?

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  19. mega-douche says:

    i can’t help but think that these guys were going to get a scathing review regardless of what their record ended up sounding like. Overall it’s great that we have a good range of genres doing their thing in SA, with varied results, originality, success, journo derision. Choice is lekker!

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  20. symbol of a facist regime? says:

    The Impala aircraft has seen service as an ab initio trainer, a primary jet trainer and an operational light attack fighter. It also served from 1968 for almost three decades as the aircraft of the SAAF’s aerobatic team, the Silver Falcons. In all, the Impalas operated from 10 SAAF bases and both Regular Force and Reserve Force pilots flew this aircraft with great distinction in times of war and peace.

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  21. dudie says:

    I don’t really know what half-decent is – since music is also quite a subjective ting. Could half-decent mean in the league of Lark?
    There are bands here you haven’t even heard of – also the amount of bands and genres that are going on here would be mind-boggling for you. Jo’burg is really about heavier music too – so I don’t thing we can have an argument on that either because you would discard it straight away. Don’t forget that you can talk about Pretoria too when you talk about the music from the North. You guys just don’t have the output really – you are a very small, cute little town full of big ideas and no action, and a bunch of synths.
    Don;t take this too seriously, I’m just winding you up. We’re one country – artists are artists no matter where. All I’m saying is that life up here is a little heavy and perhaps a little more serious. We’ve stopped joking around – it’s quite sad actually.

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  22. Moose says:

    how fucking tasteless to start an article about some band with misdirection about a tragic, brutal killing. stay classy dave

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  23. mounteng says:

    @moose – word!

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  24. trompie says:

    Your review has a desperately inappropriate intro, a smarmy middle section, and a non-commital end. Please be passionate about something, fool.

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  25. dudie says:

    ok, ok – ill shut up.

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  26. 1D10t says:

    dudie, when you are done talking out of your arse, please name us 5 great bands to come out of Gauteng. How about 3 then….No? Jerkoff

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  27. dudie says:

    Kidofdoom
    Prisoners of Strange
    Language 12
    Boo
    Kwani Experience
    Isochronous
    Desmond and the Tutus
    Dead will Tell
    340 ml (Mozambique, but learned how to play in Jozi)
    BLK JKS
    Fuzigish
    Tumi & the Volume
    Not My Dog

    …and let me not get into the jazz scene of sophia town and soweto.

    Now go fuck yourself you curmudgeon.

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  28. pointless says:

    this kinda music is totally without any point. even as an academic exercise, which is what it is, it has eff all point!

    imitation – at it’s worst.

    what is it with sa bands tryna copy contempory uk, us acts??? and the crapper ones at that?

    and why can’t sa producers produce record bands properly… but on thought … maybe its not their fault – maybe the bands are just such shyte “musicians” that the engineers’ got no other option than to record them this way. each instrument in isolation and probably triple tracked (“just to make dead sure they iron out any imperfections in the playing”)… then stacked and layered until it sounds like music recorded in hospital, then rinsed in formaldehyde/meths to completely desterilise it. (then rinsed again just to be sure…)

    complete fakes

    good luck to the sa music scene man! till tehn gotta listen to proper bands from elsewhere mofo’s/

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  29. len( the wild eyes) says:

    its so wheird to see people ripping on these guys for being fakers
    i only actually know two of them
    and they are amoung the most real people and true music lovers i have met in the last twenty
    years, i remember meeting warrick when he lived in what was basically a squat with some serious anarchist punk types not emo wannabee punk teens who live at home with their moms
    but the real deal
    he used to play for some serious hardcore bands and has been into this shit way longer than most of you
    i also remember mathew being a serious influence over a lot of people with his dj sets
    at the station back in the day
    and again was into this shit way before you and still will be after youve decided youre
    to old for art
    why rip on their vocalsit for being old or whatever, i mean do you go around saying johnny cashs last albumn was crap cause hes old well now hes actually dead but you get the picture
    the whole problem in general in south africa is often not with the bands
    but actually with the lame taste and education of the general audience
    they are mostly uneducated and have very little depth
    to what music they know
    so all you dickheads who know nothing actually
    and cant even play an instrument
    stop biting
    and go fuck yourselves
    actually
    or pick up an instrument and prove me wrong
    please dont forget to invite me to to youre next gig art exhbit, photo exhibit or whatever
    you do

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  30. Jake says:

    Must agree; intense resentment of a band hardly makes any sense, does it? If you don’t like it, ignore it…

    Rather find a band you love and spend your energy promoting the ass off them…

    The SA scene is filled with opinionated, wanna be music journo’s (ala chris roper) and listeners (not fans) who don’t know what they like and only like what they know.

    There is space people for every band to have its moment without this churlish antagonism.
    Peace

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  31. sauerkraut says:

    Hey guys,

    am might be late – but please relax. I saw the Black Hotels live and was into it immediately though not 100%l convinced. Still risky to buy a CD the old fashioned way. But surprise suprise – the ratio was 7 very likeable tracks out of 12. And I am still listening to it. “No sign of science” and “It has begun” are still on heavy rotation in my car. And yes, my 30 something wife and 9 years old daughter found their favourite tracks as well.

    Well, I am German and might not share Your “copied this, faked that” – tit for tat. For me it’s just music, good or bad. I agree, I also sometimes miss a little bit of SA identity in local (white) rock/indie pop music. But then I hear lyrics like “I was not born in Soweto, I don’t listen to Kwaito…” and think, yes that’s it.

    And to be honest, music wise, no indie band world wide re-invented the wheel since the 70ies, it seems. Perhaps Synthie-junkies like Depeche Mode in the 80ies or Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins in the 90ies with some unheard tunes. But generally, it’s all been there before, it seems.

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