Since their formation, Bay Area-based soul outfit Monophonics — Kelly Finnigan (lead vocals, keys), Austin Bohlman (drums), Ryan Scott (trumpet, backing vocals, percussion), and Max Ramey (bass) – have developed and honed a sound that continues in the classic and beloved tradition of Stax Records, Muscle Shoals, Daptone Records and Dunham Records: an incredibly cinematic sound that features elements of classic soul, heavy funk, psych rock and psych soul recorded on vintage analog recording gear, paired with a healthy amount of old-fashioned woodshedding and craft. .“We’re from the same school as the producers from the studios we love. We use the tools that we have to make the best records we can,” the band explained in press notes.
Monophonics’ third album, 2020’s It’s Only Us, which featured “Chances,” and “It’s Only Us” received praise from the likes of Billboard, Flood, Cool Hunting and American Songwriter, while selling 10,000 physical copies and amassing over 20 million streams across the various digital streaming platforms. Thematically, It’s Only Us touched upon unity in a fractious and divisive world, strength, resilience, acceptance — and of course, love. (It can’t be ol’ school soul without love songs, you know?)
The acclaimed Bay Area-based soul outfit’s fourth album, the Kelly Finnegan-produced Sage Motel was released last week through Colemine Records. The album’s title is derived from an actual place — the Sage Motel. What started out as a quaint motor lodge and common pitstop for travelers and truckers in the 1940s, Sage Motel morphed into a bohemian’ hang out by the 1960s and 1970s: Artists, musicians and vagabonds of all stripes would stop there as seedy ownership pumped obnoxious amounts of money into high-end renovations, eventually attracting some of the most prominent acts of the era. But when the money ran out, the motel devolved into a hot sheet hotel.
If the hotel’s walls could talk, they’d tell you tales of human highs and lows, of a place where big dreams and broken hearts live, and where people find themselves at a crossroads — sometimes without quite knowing how they got there. And thematically, Sage Motel tackles all of those subjects while seeing the band further cementing their reputation as one of the world’s premier psychedelic soul bands.
Last month, I wrote about Sage Motel‘s second single, the swaggering “Love You Better,” which continues the band’s remarkable run of period-specific, cinematic soul centered around Finnigan’s soulful vocals, twinkling keys, hip-hop-like breakbeats, a gorgeous horn arrangement, an expressive and lengthy flute solo and an all-woman backing vocal section. But underneath the prideful swagger, the song captures the bitter heartache of someone who gave a relationship — and their partner — their all, and yet still wound up being taken advantage of and abused.
“The song ‘Love You Better’ is rooted in the spirit of soul music and hip hop,” Monophonics explain. “It’s a braggadocio tune with a clear message to the one you loved that no one will ever be as good to them. It is that feeling of knowing you gave your all to your partner and really tried to love them the right way, only to be hurt and taken for granted. It’s empowering and important to have that self worth and remind somebody that they really missed out on a really good thing.”
Sage Motel‘s latest single, the swooning album title track “Sage Motel” is centered around a gorgeous, late 60s-early 70s soul-inspired arrangement featuring twinkling keys, Finnigan’s soulful delivery, wah wah pedaled guitar, martial-like half-step drumming, soulful all-female backing vocals paired with a lysergic guitar solo and the band’s unerring knack for crafting razor sharp, infectious hooks. The song’s narrator tells a story of a meet-cute at the titular Sage Motel that turns into a dangerous, life-altering obsession — with an almost lived-in, novelistic precision.
Directed by Kassy Mahea, the cinematic and feverish accompanying video for “Sage Motel” tells the story of a tragic love triangle rooted in the unrequited — and obsessive — love held by a lonely cleaning woman at the hotel. While only a music video, the characters that inhabit its universe behave, feel and talk the way that dysfunctional, hurt, and deeply confused people behave and talk.