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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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