As fellow WKNC DJ Snapdragon remarked recently, the weather is no longer cute. It’s getting pretty wintery here in the Triangle, but if you’re looking for an album to hit that sweet cozy spot and make it feel like fall for forty minutes, “Queens of the Summer Hotel” is a sleeper pick.
It achieves this cozy aura by managing to capture the feel of an old record perfectly. This goes beyond the vintage-style album cover or the pianos and strings that are straight out of a 1950s living room, but in the subject matter as well. “Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath” shows a snapshot of the titular pair walking “together down the primrose path” and slowly peels the layers away to detail their downfall. A certain Vermeer painting anchors the experiences of the characters in “At the Frick Museum”, while “You Could Have Been a Roosevelt” reminisces on legions of women who are entering a world that doesn’t treat them as an equal, equating it to being born in the wrong US political dynasty. These references act like a familiar blanket for the listener, while the subject matter isn’t always pleasant there is a sense of belonging that keeps you hooked.
When trying to capture a particular time period or style, it’s important to not get lost in the aesthetic and make a piece of art that can stand on its own, and “Queens” never loses sight of this. These settings are a backdrop for universal concepts of complicated romance and how life becomes very different as you grow up, all from an explicit focus on feminism and gender roles in a wider society. It doesn’t pull its punches with social critiques either. “Give Me Fifteen” is an unsettling narrative about a doctor who threatens women with “electroshock”, a stand-in for a broken system that grinds away at mental health and creates a cure that is often worse than the disease. Make no mistake, this is not a happy album, and if unflinching ruminations on mental illness is something that you don’t think you can handle, steer clear. But the way this all comes together creates a curiously warm tone that remains reflective, the quintessential fall vibe.
My first experience with Aimee Mann’s music was seeing her in a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode where she made a cameo as part of a vampire band and played one of her songs, “Pavlov’s Bell”. It’s been several decades now since that episode came out, but something that struck me when I listened to “Queens of the Summer Hotel” was how much of what made her music from that era work is present here, even in this less-guitar based form. Her commanding vocal presence and ability to take listeners on a journey haven’t wavered, and if you’re a fan of Aimee Mann’s earlier work, definitely give this one a shot.