Former American Idol contestant James Ethan Clark must’ve had something to prove with Southern Hotel, because the album is a genuine and soulful Blues/Rock record that feels like the opposite of everything American Idol stands for. Clark’s voice is raw and emotive. His guitar screams and shudders on tracks like “God Knows When” and “Anna Mae”, creating an atmosphere that most primetime audiences wouldn’t be able to handle. And, perhaps most importantly, he’s an artist who is earnest and full of integrity.
The opening notes of “Destination”, the blunt and aggressive album-over, recall the opening of Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack. It’s a lonesome sound that a distorted guitar makes so well, and Clark knows just how to play it. The lyrics constantly ask for God, be it His forgiveness or His peace, and Clark’s heartfelt vocals make the sometimes-cliched lyrics feel immediate and honest. Maybe it’s because the lyrics are playing these cliches against themselves. After all, it’s an album called Southern Hotel, and most of the songs center on a feeling of comfortable stagnation.
It’s a southern thing, some might say, the feeling that our regional comfort is also responsible for our regional arrested development. Ambition is often dampened by lack of desire, and Southern Hotel feels like an album produced by an ambitious artist who has found himself stuck in a loop of contentment.
The first single, “God Knows When,” is about this very issue.
You ain’t seen the Moon in God knows when.
We’ve got this big ‘ole world to see. It’s ours for the takin’.
Clark senses the stagnation and is desperately trying to break free from it, but it’s also a world he’s fallen in love with. The playful, and sometimes heartfelt, dichotomy in the center of the album is what brings it its best moments. “Coalmine,” one of the standout songs of the album, is perhaps the best marriage of music and lyrics in Clark’s arsenal. The guitar picks lazily over lyrics recounting a doomed love affair, but the percussion track slams in and out like waves on an ocean, making the whole story feel like time slipping away.
Halfway through the song, a harmonica comes in, bringing all of the nostalgia of the past along with it. Clark’s vocals are at their most bare, here, and at their best. The fact that “Coalmine” sits in the very center of the record is indicative of what Clark is attempting to do with the album. The most raw, emotional, and tender song rests between “God Knows When” and “Stories”, two songs that remind the listener that Clark is still young and naive, and that there’s an entire world he’s yet to see.
The careful attention to melody and rhythm is essential to any Blues album, and Clark doesn’t disappoint with Southern Hotel. And while the production may be more polished and layered than I’d prefer from my Southern Blues/Rock, there are still moments of crackling joy and thunderous fury.
Clark is a major vocal and guitar talent who has a very firm grasp on his chosen genre. While Southern Hotel may find itself stuck inside the lyrical cliches of lesser Blues albums, his showmanship makes up for his shortcomings.