savoy motel.jpg

Savoy who?

Guest writer Wilf Vernon recommends something you may have missed…

By Wilfred Vernon

Bass Snare Bass Snare Bass Bass Bass Snare - the very first sounds of Muse's new album Simulation Theory seem to be reinforcing everything the neon-drenched cover art was trying to tell you. 'Yes, of course this is an 80s-inspired cyberpunk synth odyssey. You saw the lasergrid and glowing Chinese characters, what were you expecting?' says the squelchy sine, adjusting the Power Glove on its right hand. But a minute later a graceful piano flourishes as if from nowhere. 'But', it says 'this is 80s the way we want to do it'. Retro-inspired music is rarely just a throwback, but also a product of its own time and its own artists.

Savoy Motel's self-titled debut seems similarly cut-and-dried based on its cover art: gaudy bubble text, orange and lemon colour scheme, cappuccino pop-art background - these guys must sure like the 70s. And though the members present themselves in sweater vests and houndstooth flares, the band surprisingly turns out to be a merger between two unruly garage bands straight from Nashville (singer/bassist Jeffrey Novak and drummer Jessica McFarland from Cheap Time and guitarists Mimi Galbierz and Dillon Watson out of Heavy Cream).

But in reality, Savoy Motel is not just a forty-year throwback from the age of Sia to the age of Sweet, but more interestingly a reflection of 70s nostalgia as defined by 90s artists like Pulp, Beck and the Beta Band. The opening track 'Souvenir Shop Rock' shows this almost immediately - wailing yet carefully contained guitar fights with aggressively regulated horn stab knock-offs to embroider a clipped and jangly backing track. It's a title that doesn't just acknowledge the song's mass-produced aesthetic, but glorifies it with a self-distancing sarcasm that characterises most of the album. Fundamentally this is an album in conflict with itself: the unrestrained soul and musicianship of the 70s is constantly pitted against the manipulated craftsmanship of the 90s. 

This is the alchemy that turns an album that ironically portrays itself as trite and chintzy into something unique. 'Sorry People' is an infectious pop track that foregrounds this dialectic in both its music and its video: a surly vocal line from Novak shifts into a funk-laden bass lick and a searing guitar solo from Watson after Galbierz and McFarland offer placid backing vocals. Its a juxtaposition made all the clearer in the video by the girls sitting on a barley-washed tree versus the sheer black backdrop of the solo. 'Doctor Cook' sees Mark Bolan channelled in its 'Monolith'-like guitar embellishments, whilst 'Everybody Wants to Win' sandwiches a Rolling Stones chorus between Beta Band practice sessions.

I have to give a special mention to Novak's bass playing on this album. Despite the lack of any fills or frills, the ostenato basslines consistently bring a groove that helps so many of the songs succeed, especially in the case of 'Mindless Blues'. In fact for a band that makes cheapening their music such an integral part of their aesthetic, there are some wonderful moments of musicianship throughout the album. In particular the interweaving guitars of 'International Language' - a nine-minute piece that attempts to vacuum pack lead-driven epics like Four Dead in Ohio and Maggot Brain, to fairly mixed results - are one of the real high points of the entire package for me.

Savoy Motel certainly has its share of weaker moments - 'Hot One', I'm looking at you - and yet its sheer uniqueness and bizarre charisma make it more than the sum of its parts. It's often the case through its mix of the old and the new, nostalgia can conjure up a time and a place that never quite existed. In which case, if your jumping-off point is already a concept that isn't entirely real then it comes as little wonder that the end product would, for all of its clear influences, sound unlike anything else out there.