The narrative behind ‘Hotel Shambles’ is that it was conjured up and recorded in a bedroom during a cold winter and then released to the world as a digital download going at any price, a truly modern story of music production and distribution. Usually insignificant or secondary facts when reviewing albums but here it feels pertinent because the production method directly impacts the quality of the final work, and not in a good way.
The stripped-back sound of a humbly produced album usually acquires the label ‘atmospheric’ for creating a feeling of intimacy, but what ‘Hotel Shambles’ does is bury the kernels of ideas and songs under mountains of flat sterile sounds so that it is difficult to judge whether the songs are well-written or not. You get kinds of ideas of where songs are coming from but it is hard to believe that the sound that ends up on the album is exactly what Turtlemeyer had in his head when he thought it up.
What is most strikingly wrong with the album is clear in the vocals. They are drenched in echo to the point that it is impossible to make out what is being said for much of the album. Even the few decipherable lyrics are obscured by the loud echo-filled intake of breath that comes before each line and reverberates over the following words. It’s part of an overall clumsiness that makes the album hard to pay attention to. Awkwardly placed bits of electronic percussion only add to the problem.
The third song on the album, Places, is a good example of what is going wrong here. There’s quite a nice feel to it, with a pleasant guitar riff that sounds like it could be a genuinely good song, but instead of the (for example) live rock band that would bring the song to life, it languishes in this shallow pool of stagnant sounds that makes the song feel dead. A live ensemble would certainly pump energy into it and then it could be judged as to whether it’s a good song or not.
There’s of course nothing wrong with a quiet album, it would be silly to suggest otherwise, but the job of the artist is to tweak and interfere with songs until they sound in some way presentable. Seeing as ‘Hotel Shambles’ is free to download it may seem unfair to criticise it too harshly but there is no real excuse for making an album where the songs can’t even be heard. Whether they can be enjoyed, is what the question should be, but here it isn’t.