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Destined: The Hotel Alexis

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Nathan Hogan profiles the music of Portsmouth, N.H. band The Hotel Alexis.

Destined: The Hotel Alexis

  • Download OK from The Shining Example is Lying on the Floor

The Hotel Alexis is the new musical project of Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s Sidney Alexis, but if it were a real place it might resemble the junkie-haunted motels of Denis Johnson stories, or the Chelsea room where Cohen and Joplin famously messed around, or really anywhere where extraordinary events happen behind ordinary walls. Wielding the standard-issue toolbox of dusky Americana – acoustic guitar, pedal steel, vibraphone, piano, drums and bass – Alexis crafts songs that tiptoe elegantly beyond the pale of the familiar. His candlelit character sketches are rendered with tenderness and exacting precision – the natural outgrowth of a songwriter who can still recall the “immense satisfaction” he once derived from discovering what he later learned was a D-chord.

Prior to forming his new band, Alexis made the rounds in a number of New England-based outfits, most notably the dream-pop four-piece Torrez. Formed in 2000, that group was headed by ex-fiancé Kimberlee Torres, who penned dark, velvety songs that Alexis adorned with swirling vapor trails of guitar, keyboards, mellotron, and “effects galore.” But by the summer of 2003, Alexis felt that there was something inside of him that he needed to express. “I was never quite happy in Torrez because deep down I knew that I wanted to be singing my own songs,” says Alexis. “These songs wouldn't leave me alone and I had to give them the outlet to be created or they would never give me any peace.” The singer conceived of the Hotel Alexis and asked Torres to play bass. He also enlisted Gregg Porter (of Milkweed) and Nate Groth (of Intelevision) to assist with instrumental duties. Early last year the group entered Zippah to record its debut, The Shining Example is Lying on the Floor.

“The fear of going broke drove us like a pack of antelope being chased by a tiger,” says Alexis of the two days spent at the Brookline, Massachusetts studio. But nothing in the mood, tempo, or texturing of The Shining Example betrays that harried mindset. From the opening snare brushes of “The Season for Working” – which evoke surf sliding slowly down a misty beach – to the fairy tale waltz of the closer, “The Queens of the Soft King,” Alexis’s songs feel as though they’ve been gently coaxed to their ultimate state of repose.

Much of the record's amelioration must have occurred, then, during Alexis’s lengthy writing process. “I've evolved over the years,” he admits. “I've become much more patient with songs and more willing to allow for lots of different ways of getting at a song. If someone hears one of my lyrics wrong and tells me what they thought I was saying, I often like that better and will change it. I tend to think that meaning has to be reached indirectly.” The Shining Example offers ample evidence that Alexis isn’t afraid of shifting gears as he navigates through his material. If twangy songs with mournful lap steel too often involve stock smalltown characters in romantic peril, Alexis’s songs are elusive, unpredictable, and seductively mysterious. In the world he portrays, figures trace the flight paths of bloodstained sparrows, eye each other through courtyard security cameras, and sell their belongings to buy pianos (“If you feel sad / Play just the black keys” he advises in “Dapper Dan”). “When a song even manages to hint at something that is real and true in our own lives, we will latch on to it for dear life and love the artist who created it,” says Alexis. “I feel like so many issues get polarized in America. We lose our sense of nuance – that someone can be a drug addict say, and also be addicted to pornography and at the same time they can be capable of giving great advice. That seems overlooked to me.”

In The Shining Example, Alexis seems perpetually liberated by that type of honest contradiction. The same logic frees him to blend shimmering, inorganic keyboard sounds with steel-string guitar plucking, for murky short-wave radio voices to tangle with living room piano notes. These sonic juxtapositions have already earned his band comparisons to experimental folk purveyors like Sparklehorse and Wilco, but on standout tracks like “Comeback Kid” and “The Quiet Life” the stripped-down instrumentation, fatalism and wry humor have as much in common with Vic Chesnutt’s West of Rome or Smog’s Red Apple Falls.

The Shining Example is Lying on the Floor will be the first release for Broken Sparrow Records, a label that Alexis and Groth are starting together. They hope to get things off to a quick start, following their March release with vinyl reissues of the Angels of Light records (co-releases with Important Records), a possible full-length by David Snider’s Testface project, and a Hotel Alexis follow-up by the summertime. Bolstered by the attention that a limited-edition CD-R run of the record has already received, Alexis seems excited to run with things and get a full-fledged pressing out quickly. “It seems to be the way to go at this point,” he says. “But, don't get me wrong, if the right label was interested I'd be down.”

Pre-orders and other information available through the official website: www.thehotelalexis.com.

By Nathan Hogan

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