Monophonics couldn't have been faulted for feeling emboldened by the success of "Last One Standing," the widescreen seven-minute centerpiece of their 2020 fifth album It's Only Us. Album six, the San Franciscan band's fourth led by do-a-lot frontman Kelly Finnigan, doesn't truly go farther out from a musical standpoint, but it's presented as a concept LP that welcomes the listener into the titular storied (fictitious) inn with no specified location. "Check In" sets the tone for Sage Motel in faintly ominous fashion, and from there, Monophonics continue to sharpen their vision of heavy psychedelic soul, the title track recalling most evidently Marvin Gaye -- the late-'60s end of his studio partnership with psych-soul demigod Norman Whitfield, his self-produced 1971 landmark and 1972's "Trouble Man," and even the later "I Want You." After the fairly standard co-dependent lover scene in "Sage Motel" itself, Finnigan, wracked with anguish and regret, slips into a pitch-black chamber. Sweetening elements like the mallet percussion, woodwinds, string section, and background voices make everything go down easier. Finnigan's wounded falsetto, "so empty and cold," and nearly muttered confessions -- like his gaze is fixed on an empty glass inches from his chin -- fill the rest of the first side. He puts all of his chest into side two. "Love You Better" is an embittered belter, a fiery exchange with the backing vocalists. The pace slows for the dizzied devotion ballad "Never Stop Saying These Words" and recharges for the sweeping and stomping "Warpaint." And then comes the knockout finale, "Crash & Burn," a down, not-quite-out breakup ballad that makes mere survival sound like a hard-fought triumph. While sincerity emanates from Finnigan in every song before it -- the singer's empathy enables him to personify characters convincingly -- the words and emotion here pour out, like they had to be released, requiring no imagination. "All I know is I live my life through the pressures of everyone's eyes" and the finishing "I'm so selfish" are doozies.
Sage Motel Review
by Andy Kellman