Darren Jesse was always Ben Folds Five’s secret weapon, a versatile drummer who could pound out the band’s version of “punk for sissies,” provide subtle accents for ballads like “Brick,” or even lay down a Buddy Rich beat for a big band feel, all while providing his part of a luxurious three-part harmony. But it would be hard to guess what Jesse would sound like on his own from his infrequent songwriting contributions to BFF, from the over-the-top “Song for the Dumped” to the more delicate “Magic.”
Post BFF, Jesse has abandoned the kit to front Hotel Lights, quietly turning out gorgeous, melancholy pop tunes that triangulate somewhere between Ryan Adams, Elliott Smith, and Paul Westerberg. Jesse spins a mellow, folksy groove he rarely jumps, and still delivers the hooks. Firecracker People, the band’s third release (including the 2006 six-song EP goodnightgoodmorning), is the proof. It only takes one chorus of “Blue Always Finds Me” for your brain to take the simple melody and store it with the songs you’ll be humming later without realizing it, which is something Jesse has a knack for.
For BFF completists, Jesse has resurrected “Amelia Bright,” a song that was rumored to have been part of the recording sessions for the band’s never-recorded fourth album. Musically, it’s easy to place the song’s lilting piano-driven arrangement in the BFF pantheon, but Jesse’s lyrics and the overall mood diverge a bit, better suited to Jesse’s less aggressive vocal style. Firecracker People is a memorable, enjoyable album, and the Hotel Lights’ sound falls just centimeters short of distinct. It’s tough to put your finger on the reason, and Hotel Lights is not a band to be damned with feint praise. But there’s a feeling that Jesse and company are on the verge of some sort of breakthrough, and you’ll want to keep listening until it happens.
Words By: Nick A. Zaino III[Rating: 3.5/5]