Monophonics Check Into The ‘Sage Motel’ For More Sumptuous Retro Soul

Sage Motel
3 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

No one has to spend much time wondering what a band called Monophonics is about. Between their retro-inspired name and their Colemine record label’s old school R&B-centric dynamic, this is a band that revels in the past.

Frontman/producer/multi-instrumentalist (and a solo artist under his own name) Kelly Finnigan is and has been, the band’s driving force for the four albums since their debut in 2012. On Sage Motel he unspools a song-cycle of sorts built around the titular, likely imaginary, structure which according to the notes is a place “where folks experience the highs and lows of human existence.” If that sounds a little pretentious, not to worry. It’s just an abstract skeleton to hang a bunch of tunes about busted or unrequited romance on. Few would even be able to tell what the murky concept is by reading the lyrics.

Better to just push play and let the lush, sonic soul sweetness envelope you without concerns about the vague story structure. Other than the less than a minute intro and outro (appropriately named “Check In” and “Check Out”) and the title track, there aren’t many references to the motel narrative.  


But there is plenty of easy grooving, ’70s-style pleading, and testifying from Finnigan whose voice is such a ringer for that of Marvin Gaye he could easily be successful performing a Vegas-style tribute show dedicated to the Motown singer/songwriter. Finnigan sings in a compelling, convincing falsetto for most of these 38 minutes of mid-tempo to slow-paced tracks. Other than drums, bass and trumpet, he plays everything else, bringing in guests for occasional guitar, horns, strings, orchestration arrangements and female backing singers to provide angelic support.

It’s heart-stirring and captures the sound of ’70s Philly soul or Curtis Mayfield’s non-funk work with effortless grace. But after a few cuts, the sound sticks to that blueprint, and the effect is more repetitious than rapturous. A few buoyant selections such as the snappy backbeat enlivening “Love You Better” and the horn enhanced “Warpaint” (with the bodily fluid lyrics of You bleed love like I do) push the tempo, temporarily providing much-needed respite from the predominantly ballad oriented program. 

Taken individually, the songs nail that difficult to capture, sumptuous, retro R&B vibe so prevalent five decades ago. Finnigan is a perfectionist producer, overdubbing horns and strings and tweaking the reverb like the pro archivist he is. And regardless of his group’s name, panning instruments between left and right utilizes a nifty, if retro, stereo effect that listening in headphones heightens.

But without stronger, more diverse material, the whole frustratingly becomes less than the sum of its parts. Notwithstanding its good intentions, Sage Motel doesn’t resonate as forcefully as it should, especially in light of the amount of work clearly instilled into its creation. 

Photo by Geoff Whitman / Missing Piece Group

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