It’s mighty difficult, almost three decades on now, to find a unique angle with which to approach shoegaze, but Holy Motors seem to have done it. Capitalizing on the long-passed trend of desert rock and the breezy sun-dappled psychedelia of alt-rock and pop of the ’90s, Holy Motors’ debut record Slow Sundown plays like heat haze daydream, a trip through the desert under high heat and vibrant colors. They keep the typical dissociative vibe of most shoegaze, but clearer vocals and the gentle Morricone and blues influence pervading the songs keeps them on this side of sober, avoiding the now-cliched dreary aesthetic a lot of shoegaze can evoke, especially if you’ve dived headlong into it.
This strength quickly becomes its biggest weakness, however. The songs are fine, good even, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a track that’s a mandatory skip. The record is a digestible length and doesn’t tend to challenge or grate enough to put off even the most straight-shooting music fan. By craft standards, it’s remarkable—a solid and unimpeachable 30-ish minutes of guitar-driven pop rock. The problem is that it doesn’t tend to rise much above that. The digestibility becomes the biggest barrier to that unnameable urge to put it on again, to allow it to become a soundtrack to your life.
This is treated in moments. The track “Ghost of Heart,” placed roughly two-thirds through the record (a good place for an emotional peak to an album’s arc, for those considering crafting the album-length experience), opens up the tenderness and emotionality, turning the sunlight down for a quick dash of moonlight and maudlin meandering. It plays like a ’60s girl group on quaaludes sung by a dreary and drugged out ’70s country singer about to collapse into a heap of alcohol and cheap drugs in some motel somewhere, forgotten and ready to fade away. That tonal juxtaposition serves not only to strengthen the track itself, but also the sunnier tracks on return, just knowing that other color is coming down the line.
This fusion of country, psychedelia, blues, R&B and pop-rock come together keenest on the final full track, “Sleeprydr,” one of the few holdovers from their previous EP. Its relative darkness likewise juxtaposes well against the relative brightness of the rest of the record. It’s understandable that a band would choose to explore the relatively unmapped terrain of desert psych R&B and mariachi-laced shoegaze, and even that string of words is tempting on the page knowing the somewhat underwhelming if solid results, but these darker moments show that the group has a lot more depth at their disposal if they wish to dig in.
The biggest issue at play seems to be the lack of challenge, risk or intrigue that relatively happier music can have. The tonal shift to moodiness and sorrow on those closing songs offers enough of an emotional challenge to bring the material up. The dreamy, cavernous guitar solo on “Sleeprydr” definitely helps and makes you wonder why they don’t inject more instrumental sections into their other tunes. Hopefully, by their next record, Holy Motors learn to trust themselves as intuitive and thoughtful emotionally-oriented psych players and open themselves up to get weird, solo more and challenge the listener more. They show on Slow Sundown that they can do it and still have it be pleasant, digestible and song-oriented—no mean feat. But, as pleasurable as their debut is, it’s hard not to feel it’s a little slight on challenge and risk.