The question most people ask of Zoe Muth is how a kid growing up in Seattle in the 1980s found herself playing country music. Certainly the influence of Kurt Cobain and grunge seems to have passed her by. And for that perhaps we should be grateful, because it's clear that, on the evidence of Starlight Hotel, she has something special to offer.
She has a naturally attractive singing voice, and her band the The Lost High Rollers provide a solid bedrock of unfussy, classic country playing. But as always the final and most difficult ingredient is the songs, and that's where Muth makes it sound easy, as there are a handful of tracks here that have an instant sense of familiarity. This is perhaps demonstrated best of all in “Let's Just Be Friends For Tonight”, with mandolin and pedal steel behind a lovely melody and simple but effective lyrics. This is immediately followed by “Before The Night Is Gone”, which although it starts off slower really hooks you in by the time she reaches the chorus.
Dark undercurrents lie beneath the surface of the best of Muth's songs. So when she writes about love, her songs focus on the heartache of breaking up, untrustworthy men, and the pain of being left behind. She puts it well in her song “Whatever's Left”, in a few lines that could be a statement of her musical philosophy: I want to see what's slipped through the holes and the cracks, And you can take what is new, All I want is something true.
Yet there's a brightness about the band's playing throughout that stops it from ever getting dour. And she adds a dash of humour in “If I Can't Trust You With A Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart?)”, which boasts one of those great country song titles. “Harvest Moon Blues” is a simple song built around acoustic guitar and effective “oohing” backing vocals from Joy Mills and Tom Parker from fellow Seattle band The Starlings, while “New Mexico” finds Muth turning in a nice vocal, resisting any temptation to rush the lyrics.
On an album with so much to offer, it's difficult to find fault. The title track “Starlight Hotel” has a guitar solo which is just a little too predictable, but it's a rare false step from her band, who do just about everything right. This is Muth's second album and definitely marks her out as one to watch.