Monophonics make music that points towards combinations that never happened. The eternally fresh, Bay Area-based group‘s retro-soul and psych-rock arrangements put Marvin Gaye and Can in the same studio, with Norman Whitfield behind the boards. Trippy right? So let’s ring the bell at the front desk, sign for our keys, and wander through Sage Motel, Monophonics fifth studio album since 2012. On it, lead vocalist and producer Kelly Finnigan pipes 11 songs into suites that weave through addiction, the dangers of excess, and loss of innocence.
The group’s previous record It’s Only Us was created at its San Rafael recording home, Transistor Sound Studios. It was released on March 13, 2020—which, you may recall, was precisely when the COVID lockdown hit the United States. Selling over 10,000 physical units and garnering over 20 million streams, it ironically proved to be their most successful release to date.
But hey, Monophonics have been making deep, cinematic soul jams for more than a decade, built to sound as fantastic in headphones as they do live. Since the start, they have been blessed with heavyweight praise. “One of the greatest live soul bands I have ever seen!” is how Al Bell, the renowned boss of Stax Records, once described them. But—with no disrespect to Al—characterizing the Monophonics as just soul comes off as reductive.
That multiplicity is evident even on Finnigan’s 2019 solo record The Tales People Tell, on which combined his deep-crate record IQ and multi-instrumental talents to make a drum-heavy, distorted, and fuzzy soul record. Terry Cole, label boss for Colemine Records, who first heard about Finnegan from a hip hop artist who was speaking on his superior production chops, eventually made the falsetto vocalist his unofficial West Coast A&R for the label.
“Look whatcha doing to me,” Finnigan sings, bearing witness on the track “Sage Hotel.” With full horn regalia in tow, it’s an appeal for restraint—but with the devil pulling all the strings on the band arrangements. A man’s appetite just can’t be filled, no matter how pleading the vocal execution. It’s an up-tempo groove that sees the protagonist succumb to peril, and we can’t pull our ears away.
But it’s a whole motif, this fictitious parador “where folks experience the highs and lows of human existence.” That theme brings together these 10 songs, creating one of the most consistent albums that Monophonics have put out to date. Underneath the band’s intricate arrangements, a new alchemy is smelted. The rolling green spaces found on “Broken Boundaires” is imbued with Americana in the spirit of The Wrecking Crew. That chance studio session now gets chewy anthemic passages, with “stay gold, Ponyboy” guitar solos.
Finnigan and company keep finding new colors on the palette wheel, AOR arrangements with breezy country twinges that heighten these tales of failed dreams and broken hearts.
They make Sage Motel a Hotel California on the low-rent side of town that you just can’t quit.
Buy Monophonics’ Sage Motel album now.