Rising up from Los Angeles’ early new wave underground to become MOR stars, the Motels abandoned the world that launched them as soon as it was feasible to do so. At first committed to calculated oddness, they found success making bland, almost colorless sophisti-pop records.
Both Motels and Careful present the group’s music on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, presumably on the assumption that it would be uncool to attempt persuasion. Martha Davis croons with just a trace of husky sensuality, kept from seeming too involved by relentlessly quirky material and jagged backing. Motels includes “Anticipating” and “Porn Reggae,” icy songs about sex; Careful (on which a short-lived lineup included ex-Pop guitarist Tim McGovern, who was Davis’s boyfriend at the time) features “Danger,” which flirts with emotion without succumbing. (The band’s third album was rejected by Capitol for being too “strange” and “dark,” with no obvious single; 30 years later it saw the light of day as Apocalypso.)
Davis and the Motels dispensed with McGovern but retained the shelved album’s producer, Val Garay (Linda Ronstadt, Kim Carnes) and tried again. The result was All Four One, which pulled the Motels away from the rock fringe and, largely to Garay’s credit, made a crumbling low-commercial-potential outfit into stars. Though much of the material is still irritatingly affected, you can bet everyone noticed that the LP’s big hit, “Only the Lonely,” is an old-fashioned romantic ballad, which ironically had been recorded (and absurdly overlooked by the supposed wise men at the band’s label) for the abandoned album.
Despite the addition of ex-Stooges keyboardist Scott Thurston to the lineup (which already included onetime Iggy drummer Brian Glascock), Little Robbers continues the profitable process of selling the Motels as a mainstream torch song enterprise. “Suddenly Last Summer” and other cuts are so atmospheric that you’ll just want to take a nap. At this point, the Motels were essentially a one-woman show — Davis might as well junk the band and go solo.
She did, but not before Richie Zito bombastically overproduced the band’s dreadful swan song, Shock. The huge drum sound and zealous commercial aspirations bury the album’s few seductive tunes in noisy miscalculation. Zito repeated that ill-advised formula on Davis’ Policy, vying against her hardy vocals with layers of loud rock guitar and echo-laden percussion, yielding something akin to Heart. “Just Like You” features Clarence Clemmons [sic]; “What Money Might Buy” has a Charlie Sexton guitar solo. Sad.
Besides an overly generous 19 selections, the belated Motels compilation No Vacancy has weird liner notes by Australian journalist Glenn Baker that dwell on the group’s popularity Down Under. Couldn’t the record company find an American writer with a nice word or two for the Motels?