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Firing twin barrels of singer-songwriter rock and heartland alt-country, Whiskey in the Pines turn a new page with Aloha Motel, an EP that serves as the darker, nocturnal foil to 2018's critically-acclaimed Sunshine from the Blue Cactus.
Written in the band's native Florida and partially recorded in Nashville, Aloha Motel marks the latest batch of songs from frontman David Lareau, a longtime musician who signed his first record deal — a major-label contract with Columbia Records, no less — at 19 years old. Nearly two decades later, he continues to write autobiographical songs about love, loss, and the cycle of life, stocking each one with the sharp details of a traveling troubadour who's logged thousands of miles on the road.
It was the road, after all — US-319 South, to be exact — that inspired Whiskey in the Pines' name. Hailing from the landlocked city of Tallahassee, Lareau quickly became familiar with the long ribbon of blacktop that stretches toward the Gulf. He's made the two-hour drive countless times, barreling toward the water with the radio turned high, pine trees lining the interstate for much of the way. Nicknamed "Whiskey" by a friend, Lareau didn't have to look very far for a band name that nodded to the band's melodic, southern songwriting and Sunshine State roots.
Aloha Hotel's six songs are culled from the same recording sessions as Sunshine from the Blue Cactus. Like the EP that came before it, much of the material is inspired by a turbulent year that included the doubt of being able to continue on in music, the passing of Lareau's mother. All three events rear their heads on Aloha Hotel, whose heavy subject matter helps balance the bright, sunlit bounce of Blue Cactus. On the waltzing, orchestral "Boxes," he grapples with his mother's death as he packs her belongings into a series of boxes, while a pedal steel guitar swoons in the background. On "Kills Me To Leave," he pines for his life back home while heading toward another gig. Elsewhere, his voice shares the spotlight with banjo riffs and moody percussion on "Keep Me on My Feet." The song finds a weary Lareau asking for help, leaning upon those around him to remain upright. Luckily, those around him — including bandmates Erik Wutz (drums), Aaron Halford (bass), Kelly Chavers (guitar), and Stacey Mulford (pedal steel) — are happy to help, layering the song with cinematic touches and collaborative charm.
For a longtime songwriter like Lareau, the muse can appear when you least expect it. "Good Left in Me," with its anthemic guitar riff and barroom piano intro, was written while he vacuumed the house. The coastal-themed "What the Tide Brings In" was inspired by a whiskey-drunk viewing of the Tom Hanks film "Castaway," while his wife spent an evening in the hospital and his newborn son spent one of his first evenings at home. Together, these songs shine new light not only upon Lareau's longevity as a roots-minded songwriter, but also the strength of his band — a group of collaborators and longtime friends who add heft, harmony, and just the right amount of sonic grit to Aloha Hotel's tracks. It may be a darker EP than the band's 2018 release, but that doesn't make Aloha Hotel any less inviting. Turn on, tune in… and stay awhile.
Frank Keith IV