The latest full-length from Cordovas, Destiny Hotel is a work of wild poetry and wide-eyed abandon, set to a glorious collision of folk and country and groove-heavy rock-and-roll. In a major creative milestone for the Tennessee-based band—vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Joe Firstman, keyboardist Sevans Henderson, guitarist/vocalist Lucca Soria and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Toby Weaver—the album harnesses the freewheeling energy of their live show more fully than ever, all while lifting their songwriting to a whole new level of sophistication. The result is a batch of songs that ruminate and rhapsodize with equal intensity, inviting endless celebration on the way to transcendence.
Recorded in Los Angeles and produced by Rick Parker (Lord Huron, Beck, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club), Destiny Hotel expands on the harmony-soaked roots rock of Cordovas’ debut album That Santa Fe Channel, a 2018 release that earned abundant praise from outlets like Rolling Stone and NPR Music. Before heading to L.A., Cordovas spent over three months in their second homebase of Todos Santos (an artist community in Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula), sketching dozens of songs partly sparked from their voracious reading of authors like mythologist Joseph Campbell, poet/novelist Rainer Maria Rilke, and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. And when it came time for the recording sessions—a frenetic seven-day stretch squeezed in just before stay-at-home orders took effect in response to the global pandemic—the band methodically eliminated any lyrics they deemed inconsequential.
“We wanted to strike the term ‘want’ from our music—to get rid of all the ‘Baby, baby, baby, I want this, I want that,’ and create something more useful,” says Firstman. “We needed to make sure these were songs we’d be proud to sing forever.”
But while Destiny Hotel unfolds in untold revelations on fear and ego and self-liberation, Cordovas offer up that insight without ever slipping into didacticism. In fact, much of the album radiates utter elation, each moment echoing Cordovas’ band-of-brothers kinship and extraordinary closeness: when they’re not touring the world, taking the stage at leading festivals like Stagecoach, Newport Folk and Pickathon, or hosting their own Tropic of Cancer Concert Series down in Todos Santos, Cordovas spend much of their time practicing in the barn at their communal farm home just outside Nashville. “I can’t imagine that many bands rehearse more than we do,” says Firstman, whose wife and young child also live on the farm. “We’re all here together in this wonderful space, and we’re pretty good about never taking it for granted.”
On the lead single to Destiny Hotel, Cordovas channel their unbridled joy into a soul-soothing call for radical openness. With its references to old country revivals and mid-’60s Dylan, “High Feeling” (which features additional production, guitars & mixing from the Black Pumas’ Adrian Quesada and additional backing vocals from the Black Pumas’ touring members Angela Miller and Lauren Cervantes) speaks to the pure euphoria to be found in shaking off whatever binds you (“Open up your heart, let love come through the door/Open up your mind, that’s what it’s for”). “That’s us telling you directly what to do, and hopefully in a way that’s more like Bob Marley than some New Age guy who thinks he’s saving the world because he’s so in tune,” Firstman points out.
That warmth of spirit endures through all of Destiny Hotel, and shines especially bright on songs like “Do More Good”—a sing-along-ready anthem overflowing with love for folk of all kinds (i.e., “The freaks and the prideful/The peaks and the eyefuls/The ones who just wait ’til their dreams are all stifled/Most too afraid to admit they been lied to”). Adorned with delicate piano work and softly rambling harmonies, “Afraid No More” presents a tender pledge to live free of fear. “In every single way, lack of awareness comes down to fear,” says Firstman. “All drugs are fear, and if we’re a worthwhile collective, then we should be helping each other instead of letting each other deteriorate and die. It’s a song that we sing to ourselves, because we’re all here to a grand party together.” As the sweetly scrappy counterpart to that statement, “Fine Life” extols the simple pleasures that light up our everyday existence. “It’s the same character as ‘Ain’t Afraid No More,’ but this is his peace time,” Firstman notes. “He knows he’s that hippie and weed-smoker at heart, and this is his little prayer of gratitude for the good life he’s got.”
In many ways a full-circle moment for Firstman, Destiny Hotel delivers on the promise first glimpsed on his 2003 debut solo album The War of Women (an Atlantic Records-released effort also produced by Parker). “It almost felt like an achievement of sport to come from where I came from and get to Hollywood, write my name on a piece of paper and get this big record deal,” recalls Firstman, who grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. “The music that came out of that time didn’t really feel spiritual to me.” Though his solo album brought such triumphs as opening for Willie Nelson, Firstman soon drifted into a period of what he now describes as deliberate self-sabotage, eventually losing his record deal and landing a gig as music director on “Last Call with Carson Daly.” Along with enabling him to collaborate with the likes of Thundercat and Kamasi Washington—and to build his house in the then-sleepy beach town of Todos Santos—the “Last Call” job led to another life-changing phenomenon. “At the time I was throwing all these parties like Gatsby up in Hollywood, and this thing started happening where people kept leaving me books,” says Firstman. “I’d made it out to this maddening town with vultures around me everywhere, but these angels kept dropping books off—Letters to a Young Poet, Marcel Proust, Eckhart Tolle. All of that brought me to every thought I have now.”
Since forming in 2011, Cordovas have matched their richly layered reflection to a sound that goes straight to the soul. And on Destiny Hotel, the band made a point of intensifying the body-moving power of their music, with Firstman heading to L.A. several days before the start of the recording sessions and working closely with Parker to shape each track’s pulse and groove. In that process, he tapped into the instinctive sense of rhythm he largely attributes to growing up on hip-hop and R&B back in his hometown. “When I was a kid we used to make up rhymes in class, make up rhymes while walking the street,” Firstman says. “It wasn’t until I started hanging out at the parties in the suburbs with all the white kids drinking Bud Light that I heard the Allman Brothers and saw that there was deep poetry in there, too.”
As one of the most potent tracks on Destiny Hotel, the resolute yet rollicking “Destiny” embodies an essential message that Cordovas carefully threaded all throughout the album: the urgency of living with clarity of purpose and, as Firstman puts it, “breaking free from the false shell.” “It’s something we’re always asking ourselves: what are you doing and why are you doing it? If you can break it down exactly and really get to that why, then you’ll never have to fake anything,” says Firstman. “This is an incredibly important time for artists and mystics and people of all kinds to challenge themselves like that, to gather strength and kill any stagnancy—that way, if someone asks if you can defend what you’re doing, the answer will be a resounding yes.”
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