Hotel Lights
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Hotel Lights

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States | INDIE

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States | INDIE
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This band has not uploaded any videos


The best kept secret in music


"Hotel Lights - CMJ"

May 2006

HOTEL LIGHTS: Hotel Lights
Though their name conjures up images of loosened-tie businessmen sneaking out of room 69 under the sputtering glow of "Vacancy" neon, these Hotel Lights are more like a dark drive up the lonely highway to the Super 8 for a quiet night of contemplative ceiling-scanning. Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee sounds like a guy who's had his share of traversing the tour road and is ready for a reflective pause. His first solo record is wayfeathery acoustic strum plus drum brushes, flowing at a pace akin to the 2 a.m. parking space search. Along with other weary, welltraveled indie pals like former Archers Of Loaf beat-keeper Mark Price, pleasing chill-tunes spill out, as often pretty as plain lulling. When the weave of soft synth and guitar works ("A.M. Slow Golden Hit,""Follow Through”), the melodies bury their way into your noggin. A couple of peppier, piano-plunked pieces purr—a perfect band for folks that find the Shins a bit too brazen.

"Hotel Lights - PopMatters"

Hotel Lights (Bar None)
Rating: 6
US release date: 7 March 2006

by Michael Franco

Rarely does a band truly understand the inextricable relationship between sound and image—both visual and overall perception. When a band selects a name, they are permanently shaping the way an audience will first interact with them, even before the audience hears the music. Think, for instance, how many people must have reached the conclusion the Goo Goo Dolls are sappy rubbish before hearing the proof. The same holds true for album covers, which, when carefully selected, should give the listener an idea of the overall tone of the album. More importantly, a great album cover intrigues the viewer, thus arousing interest in the band. Name and image, indeed, are crucial to a band’s aura, and bands like the Smiths realized that the two could be used to create a mystique that shapes a career.

Hotel Lights, the band of former Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee, know how to combine sound and image. Their debut album features a light blue cover with a picture of a hotel room window; outside the window is a neon sign, so faded it almost blends into the dreary autumnal sky. Overall, the cover feels both lonesome and nostalgic, much like a person on a solitary road trip trying to simultaneously escape and come to terms with the past. Then there’s the band’s name, which also evokes feelings of solitude and reveals the impossibility of hiding from oneself. Speaking of his band’s name, Darren Jesse said, “When you see hotel lights in the distance, you feel like, ‘Yeah, I’m almost there.’ But when you stand in the bathroom and turn on the hotel lights… you see every scar.” Damn, that’s poetic.

And poetic this album is, both musically and lyrically. Overall, the songs are spare and spacious. Most of the tracks feature basic instrumentation—acoustic guitar, drums, keyboards—and the music is open to give the lyrics room to breathe. “You Come and I Go” begins with the sound of howling wind, then a slow acoustic strum is introduced, then Jessee’s soft, fragile voice. Simple and uncluttered, it’s a study in songwriting; more is not always better, and a memorable melody can do more for a song than layers of noise. Many of the songs, such as “Small Town Shit”, are crafted in the same mold; built upon a slow chord progression and featuring flourishes of fills and leads that provide variation and enhance the mood of the work.

Not all of the tracks, however, are slow burners. “I Am a Train”, for instance, is classic sunny pop, featuring a steady, propulsive beat and a catchy refrain of “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright… Come on, come on, come on, come on”. Infectious and durable, it sounds like a song Wilco would make if they didn’t take themselves so seriously. “Marvelous Truth” is another up-tempo song, this one showing the band’s diversity. Beginning with surf keyboards, it’s markedly different from the other tracks, but still displays the band’s penchant for melody and rhythm.
Even when he’s upbeat, though, Jessee can’t help but sound pensive and literate. His voice, delicate and restrained, is perfectly suited to both the music and lyrics, particularly when the latter veers towards the poetic—which is often. By connecting emotions to everyday places and objects, Jessee is able to convey complex feelings in simple language. “Stumbling Home Winter Blues”, for example, perfectly captures the isolation of heartbreak in mid-winter: “Goodbye, street light, good night / I’m sure that I’ll be fine / I called from a payphone / You were still sleeping / Daylight is breaking / My head is spinning...” Not only are these words gorgeous, they also display Jessee’s lyrical wisdom; lesser lyricists would have rhymed “night” with “alright” and “breaking” with “aching”. By avoiding the obvious rhymes, Jessee maintains the poignancy of the lyrics, and adds yet another small detail of craftsmanship to an album full of such artistic care.

Hotel Lights requires time to truly appreciate. While many of the songs are instantly catchy, others are so nuanced it takes repeated listens to hear the layers of instrumentation and realize the craftsmanship of the songs. Yet while the majority of the tracks here are wonderfully understated and wistful, others are so light they dissolve and drift away like random memories. This is forgivable; after all, the songs are about random memories that drift away, so it’s understandable if a few of the songs are so airy they lack direction. Ultimately, this is a solid debut by a band wise enough to know that the musical experience extends beyond the actual songs. Like the view outside the window on the album’s cover, these songs capture the possibility that something beautiful might be waiting just beyond the loneliness.
- PopMatters

"Hotel Lights - Harp"

Hotel Lights

When Ben Folds Five disbanded in 2000, drummer and songwriter Darren Jessee struck out on his own, eventually forming Hotel Lights, a quartet featuring him as singer, guitarist and occasional pianist. On this nicely punchy sophomore album, the Lights prove capable of everything from gently ferocious propulsion to crystalline balladry. As a lyricist, Jessee inventively covers standard themes of love, loss, disconnectedness, disappointment, hope and desire, singing lines like “You read my palm while we were naked, said a man should know his limitations.” His voice—soft in timbre and clear in diction—is that of someone who wants everything to go right and is willing to say so, but who’s never in your face about it. Just like a good neighbor.

By David Greenberger
First printed in June 2006
- Harp

"Hotel Lights - Independent Weekly"

MARCH 29, 2006

"Lights On"

Hotel Lights go to Austin and come home happy

Rock clubs and their dimly lit stages are a respite for shadowy figures. Tonight, Darren Jesse's songs--projected in his perfectly trustworthy, half-confident lilt--are those shadowy figures, drifting from the stage of Friend's, a college bar in Austin. Jesse's Chapel Hill quintet Hotel Lights are one of six bands on a bill at this Sixth Street club, lined with banners for Bud Light and neon signs that betray its University of Texas proximity. The show is part of a showcase for Bar/None Records, the Hoboken, N.J. label that issued the band's debut two weeks ago.

Jesse has been here, at South by Southwest, before: Without a record label, Hotel Lights played here last year and, years ago, Jesse played here with his old band, Ben Folds Five. When Hotel Lights heads back to Chapel Hill Sunday, Jesse will note that this has been his favorite SXSW so far: Now that the band is on Bar/None, people are paying attention, but their eponymous debut has not been out long enough to turn the band's weekend in Texas into a flurry of short gigs and public relations activities.

People crowd into the bar, watching as Jesse and the rest of the Lights--keyboardist Chris Badger, bassist Roger Gupton, drummer Zeke Hutchins, guitarist Al Weatherhead--play 40 minutes of material from the debut, a sublime record of dreamy, wistful pop. Two girls near the front sing along, beaming as Jesse sings lyrics about Chapel Hill ("Like the waitress down at The Lantern") and making exits ("I've got it figured out/ I am a train/ I am a train leaving").

Those working with the band
watch carefully. For some, including Bar/None president Glenn Morrow, this is their first chance to see the band. Morrow signed them, and two other bands on tonight's bill, sight unseen. From his New Jersey office a week later, he notes that this performance--from Jesse's unique but familiar vocals to Badger's tasteful, effusive keyboard work--makes him very happy.

Friday night in Austin is hedonistic, but this seems more like a solace. Jesse is revealing his most personal moments, and a packed room is paying attention. For a new band like Hotel Lights, though, SXSW most often means playing several shows in a few days. Almost every gig here in town is less than ideal, bands rushing to put gear onstage for fear of losing even a minute of crucial set time. But it's the auxiliary gigs--at corporate parties during the day or in record stores--that put young bands in the most awkward spots.
Hotel Lights' final show here is no exception: For the band's second appearance arranged by the label, they're scheduled for an 8 p.m. slot at Cheapo Discs, a massive record store four blocks north of SXSW's Sixth Street epicenter. Jesse and his songs are baking under the fluorescent lights. The stage is tucked into a back corner, behind the used vinyl and in front of a huge mural of Texas iconography. Jesse's head juts up in front of a cowboy and horse during a red Texas sunset, and Gupton is framed by a black painting of the state.

Jesse's songs are intimate and personal, carefully penned confessionals that seem a bit too striking in the harsh fluorescent light of the store. The songs are textured, too, sketched by Jesse's guitar but painted in the chromatic keys and guitar work of Badger and Weatherhead. Hutchins and Gupton provide the backbone and, together, it all taxes the store's PA, two speakers mounted on high racks and flanking the stages. Hotel Lights isn't a loud band, but it's the kind of elegant pop that requires finessed mixing and a good set of cones. That's not exactly part of the Cheapo's set-up, but the 40 people standing in the aisles and in front of the stage enjoy what they hear.

At SXSW, that's more than half of the battle.

For more on the band, see
- Independent Weekly

"Hotel Lights - 3hive"


Label: Bar None
Genre: Pop, Slowcore

Darren Jesse, ex-Ben Folds Five drummer, is the brainchild behind Hotel Lights. This is no solo project however. I imagine after being one of the nameless two-thirds in Ben Folds Five Jessee soured on the solo-type thing. That's pure speculation on my part. He's put together an impressive band featuring Mark Price (Archers of Loaf drummer) and Alan Weatherhead (a once-member of Sparklehorse) as producer and guitarist. Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne had his hand in a few tracks as well. The pedigree should get your attention, but the product will hold it. This is the kind of music I'll never burn out on: richly-textured, finely-crafted pop songs that play effortlessly and smooth.

Posted by sean on 02.14.06 | Buy from Amazon, Insound
- 3hive

"Hotel Lights - Daily Vault"

Hotel Lights
Sit-n-Spin Records, 2005

Review by Jason Warburg

When last we visited the boys of Hotel Lights, they had self-released their quietly magnificent self-titled 2004 debut disc. Two years have passed, and there's news, all of it good. First, there's this tasty little hors d'oeuvre of an EP on North Carolina's own indie label Sit-n-Spin Records, and then there's the pick-up and reissuance of Hotel Lights by indie darlings Bar/None Records (The Sharp Things, Petra Haden, Freedy Johnston, The Mendoza Line, etc.). HL can also now be found on iTunes.

As lights go on all over and this EP's opener "Let Me Be The One" comes into focus, we find the band's chief songwriter, Ben Folds Five drummer-turned-doe-eyed-frontman Darren Jessee, crooning gently over the rich bed of soft intriguing noise laid down by bandmates Chris Badger (keyboards), Roger Gupton (bass), Miguel Urbiztondo (drums) and Alan Weatherhead (guitar). Co-produced by Weatherhead and the band, Goodnightgoodmorning is another intriguing compendium of downbeat murmurings that mix acoustic guitar, otherworldly synth textures and minimalist, precise electric guitar, bass and drums. Defying all attempts at labeling, it's gently hypnotic, richly resonant, and subtly subversive.

As for individual tracks, "Let Me Be The One" hums with soft urgency; "Talking To Lisa" shimmers with disappointment and synth effects; and "Happy And Glad" manages to be bitter and uplifting and clever all at once ("You said everyone's a chord, and I was C major"). Closer "Another Year" adds strings and various retro effects, approaching the tunefulness (and quirkiness) of an Abbey-Road era McCartney piano ballad.

The juxtaposition of Jesse's world-weary vocals and acoustic strums with Badger's quirky, surrealistic synth blips, bleeps and washes once again impresses with the emotional character and shadings it conveys. Hotel Lights' music is all about atmosphere, and they've figured out how to keep it fresh and interesting, a little Peter Gabriel one minute, a little Bright Eyes the next.

As a whole, these six tunes don't so much expand the HL sound as crystallize it. Gauzy, oblique, keening and moving, Goodnightgoodmorning will surely keep your appetite up until the next HL full-length.

[Visit Hotel Lights online at]

Rating: B+
- Daily Vault


"Hotel Lights" full length cd, 2006
"Goodnightgoodmorning" ep, 2006


Feeling a bit camera shy


Hotel Lights

“… when you see hotel lights in the distance you feel like ‘yeah, I’m almost there’, but when you stand in the bathroom and turn on the hotel lights, they are fluorescent and you see every scar.” - Darren Jessee

Fans of Darren Jessee – singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and former Ben Folds Five drummer – have long been wondering when he would officially release the debut disc of his new band, Hotel Lights. It had previously been available only as a very limited self-release, one that generated a serious interest and prompted lots of internet chatter about when the album might actually show up at the local bricks-and-mortar record store. It’s easy to see what everyone was getting excited about: this self-titled debut is a collection of elegantly arranged, folk-tinged pop that will appeal to fans of the Shins, Yo La Tengo, Sufjan Stevens and, of course, Ben Folds. (Darren co-wrote such BF5 classics as the beautifully melancholy “Brick” and “Song For the Dumped.”)

Accompanying Darren on the Hotel Lights album are former Archers of Loaf drummer Mark Price, bassist Roger Gupton and keyboardist-guitarist Chris Badger. They recorded the album at Sound of Music in Virginia, with guitarist and producer Alan Weatherhead (Sparklehorse), who now plays with the band. Adam Scheslinger from Fountains of Wayne helped out with some of the arrangements. Among the stand-out tracks are Darren’s wistful tribute to the pop radio classics of the seventies, “A.M. Slow Golden Hit” and the harder-rocking, organ-driven “Marvelous Truth.”

The music is richly layered with melodious keyboards, crisp guitars and soft pianos. Hotel Lights play with authority and confidence, creating their own brand of timeless pop. Jessee's vocals are as distinct and endearing as the songs themselves. And his lyrics set him apart from his peers, with an honest, storytelling that repeatedly touches upon the holy trinity of great pop records: love, loss, and starting over.

Hotel Lights will be on tour all throughout the summer, headlining clubs and playing on bills with Tift Merritt, Jennifer O’Connor, Kevin Devine and Bishop Allen. And check them out at

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