"Million Star Hotel" is easily one of the best albums ever to come out of the fertile North Carolina music scene,and it deserves the kind of exposure that the work of home-state peers such as Ryan Adams, Ben Folds and Tift Merritt has enjoyed. Parke Puterbaugh, Rolling Stone Contributing Writer.
Singer, guitarist and songwriter Jeffrey Dean Foster dates his musical career back in the mid-Eighties, when he cofounded the Right Profile. One of the first and best bands on North Carolina’s fertile indie music scene, the Winston-Salem-based quartet played high-energy, rootsy rock and roll. Like many of Foster’s musical undertakings over the past two decades, the Right Profile were ahead of their time. (Interesting footnote: Foster’s foil in the Right Profile, pianist Steve Dubner, went on to fame in the writing field as coauthor of Freakonomics.)
Long before the Americana movement caught fire in this decade - before the genre even had a name - Foster also piloted an early-Nineties group called the Carneys which included Andy York (now with John Mellencamp), whose unreleased album is a veritable blueprint for Americana’s synthesis of country, folk, roots and rock. Later that decade, Foster’s next band - the Pinetops, released an album of protean American music, Above Ground and Vertical. It contained the wistful classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Fly,” which has been covered by Marti Jones and others. Again, Foster was breaking ground in a field that hadn’t yet found the broader audience it now enjoys. After the Pinetops’ demise, he cut a raw, quasi-live solo EP called the leaves turn upside down, which stood singer/songwriter conventions on their head and set a tone of fearless artistry that would find expression on his new album, Million Star Hotel.
Foster has been a favorite son in his home state and a cherished find among musical cognoscenti around the country. Now, with Million Star Hotel, he’s made the album of his career - spent five years of his life getting it right, in fact - and the stars have lined up in his favor. He’s come tantalizingly close to tasting the big time before. The Right Profile and the Carneys had deals with Arista and Warner Chappell., respectively, and over the years Foster has recorded with such renowned producers as Pete Anderson, Jim Dickinson, Don Dixon and Steve Jordan. But he has paid a price for being slightly ahead of the curve. Not this time.
With the release of Million Star Hotel - Foster’s first full-length debut as a solo artist - he has surpassed himself with an album of gorgeous, moving songs that possess uncommon depth. Its 14 tracks play through like a song cycle that’s moved forward not by an overt plot or concept but by an emotional arc that pulls the listener through a kaleidoscopic range of moods. These include yearning, melancholy, determination and, in the end, grateful and passionate accommodation to life’s circumstances. Foster wanted to make an album that felt true to life but also a bit larger than life, and he’s succeeded with this soulful, atmospheric set of shivery-good songs.
“There are a lot of recurring motifs - musical approaches and sounds, but mostly lyrical and mood kinds of things - that I was not at all aware of until I see them laid out now,” says Foster. “I think throughout Million Star Hotel there’s some kind of longing for something that you half-remember or the way you felt when you were 17 or 27 or whatever.”
With its aura of aching beauty and self-revelation, accented by organic production touches, Million Star Hotel bears gem-like reflections of such seminal influences as Neil Young, Ray Davies, Lindsey Buckingham and Hank Williams. You’ll even hear occasional nods to such Seventies rock forebears as Bowie, Bolan and ELO in such songs as “Lost In My Own Town” and “Long Gone Sailor.” Members of Foster’s old group, the Pinetops, and his current band, the Birds of Prey, contributed to Million Star Hotel. Noted musician-producer Mitch Easter - of Let’s Active and R.E.M. fame - stepped in toward the end to mix the album and add a few choice guitar parts.
Yet Million Star Hotel is essentially a one-man show, recorded at odd hours and numerous locales in almost sculptural fashion by Foster. He sang and played guitar, keyboards and whatever else struck him as appropriate as songs took shape in his head.
“I’m really addicted to the feeling of a new song coming at you from way off down the tracks,” says Foster. “You hear it coming like a big train, and you just jump on when it comes by.”
It is Jeffrey Dean Foster’s time to shine, and Million Star Hotel will induce many new listeners to embark on an endlessly rewarding musical journey.
Parke Puterbaugh - Rolling Stone Contributing Writer