Thursday, April 28, 2011

Album Review: Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers - Starlight Hotel

In sharp contrast with the slick, polished, and predictable mainstream country fare, it’s refreshing to hear a record characterized by such simple charm as that of the new sophomore release from Seattle-born songstress Zoe Muth and her band the Lost High Rollers. Starlight Hotel is a record replete with light acoustic arrangements, as well as soft restrained vocals on the part of lead singer Zoe Muth. She’s backed up by some fine musicians. The sweet sound of Ethan Lawton’s mandolin winds its way around the notes in each song. Dave Harmonson supplies the weeping sounds of the pedal steel. Meanwhile, Mike McDermott accompanies on guitar as Greg Nies keeps the beat on drums.

Zoe Muth continues to prove herself an exceptionally talented songwriter, claiming writing credits on all of the albums tracks, all of which are consistently engaging in content. Her lyrics explore themes of emotional vulnerability, restlessness, and a wide spectrum of other topics. The album opens with “I’ve Been Gone,” which tells the tale of a woman’s lust for the open road, and her desire for companionship on her never-ending travels. The track is complete with a charming mariachi horn section that sounds reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” “Whatever’s Left” finds a woman looking for reassurance of commitment from her lover, as expressed in the well-crafted hook “When something is broken or something is bent/ I want to hear you say/ We can make do with whatever’s left.”

The theme of romantic disappointment is given ample treatment, particularly on songs such as “Before the Night Is Gone” and “New Mexico.” On the former, a woman silently grieves over the sad state of a relationship, pining for reassurance of her man’s affections. “Won’t you tell me our love will linger on/ And knock that chip of your shoulder/ Into your heart of stone to start a spark,” she wonders, “’Cause I need some way to see in the dark.” In the comparatively lighter tune “Let’s Just Be Friends for Tonight,” Zoe’s character is a bit further into her healing process after the dissolution of a relationship. She finds consolation in a bar, listening to sad old country songs, and sharing “a wink and a smile” with a man she meets there. “But,” she says, “I don’t want a new love unless it’s a true love/ So let’s just be friends for tonight.”

“Tired Worker’s Song” is a strong lyric, but rather pedestrian in melody and performance. It has a dull melody that doesn’t combine well with Zoe’s understated vocal style. In contrast, “If I Can’t Trust You with a Quarter (How Can I Trust You with My Heart)” has an odd set of lyrics, but boasts a pleasant steel-guitar-laced mid-tempo arrangement. The song is about a woman who meets a man she is initially interested in, but declares it a deal breaker when he takes her quarter and plays the wrong song on the jukebox. The track may garner smiles from some listeners, and raised eyebrows from others.

Still, even those two lesser tracks display notable strong points of their own, just as every other track on the album does. There are no tracks on Starlight Hotel that are weak enough to be labeled as missteps. Overall, Starlight Hotel is a solid effort that rings with simple, earthy sincerity throughout the track listing. It’s an entertaining, absorbing listen that will make a welcome addition to any country music record collection.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)