Song Review: Old Dominion, “Hotel Key”

Is it a shallow, inconsequential song about nothing? Yes…but at least it’s fun.

I’ve called out a bunch of artists whose output appears to be trending in the wrong direction, but Old Dominion is one of the few acts that seems to be getting better over time (then again, when you start with a tire fire like “Break Up With Him,” there’s really nowhere to go but up). “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart” was a decent tune with a nice message, and while “Written In The Sand” didn’t thrill me upon first listen, it kinda-sorta grew on me as time went on. Now the group is back with “Hotel Key,” the third single from their Happy Endings album, and while it’s essentially a sequel to “Snapback,” it features sharper writing while still maintaining its  fun, lighthearted feel.

The production here is a near-exact copy of what we heard on “Snapback,” with a prominent electric guitar carrying the melody and a real drum set keeping time. Dig a bit deeper, however, and you find a few concessions to a more-traditional sound: The guitars feel a bit less slick and feature brighter tones with a bit more rollick, and the synthetic background tones on the chorus have been replaced with an actual organ. Regardless, however, the vibe of both songs is the same: Lighthearted, energetic, and thoroughly enjoyable. Rather than focus on the steamy, sultry side of a “happy ending,” the mix decides to own its role as a shallow summer song and takes a playful approach to the topic à la Garth and Midland, and the song stands out more as a result (and personally, I wish more wannabe sex jams would do this). It’s not a terribly unique or memorable mix, but at least it’s time well wasted.

Lead singer Matthew Ramsey deserves a lot of credit for making this song work as well as it does, because the track does his no favors: It’s set a key or two too low for his vocals, causing him to bottom out at point during the verses, and the rapid-fire talk-singing nature of the lyrics really exposes how awkward and stilted his flow is. (He sounds much more comfortable on the choruses, where he’s allowed to stretch his range a bit and the rest of the band can help him out with their harmonies.) The key here is having enough charisma to sound believable as they revel in an old memory (the default reaction for most country singers is to lament the missed opportunity), and Ramsey has enough skill to get the job done despite the degree of difficulty. He doesn’t contribute anything unique to the sound, but he doesn’t screw it up and ruin the mood either.

The lyrics are where this song steps up and differentiates itself from “Snapback.” The narrator describes what is basically a one-night stand with a woman, but does so in a way that makes it feel less like a cheap hookup and more like a truly meaningful moment in the narrator’s life. There is no mention of “making out” or “making love,” and the only physical contact that’s even alluded to is when the pair “danced by the TV [they] never turned on.” (Also, in contrast to the “you’re so hot; let’s hook up” message of “Snapback,” here the introductions are already made and the woman is barely described at all.) Much more attention is given to the setting and the non-intercourse portions of the encounter: checking out three hours late, the way the woman sat on the bed and “talked about Austin and how she’d get back there someday” (an unintentional Blake Shelton reference?), and of course, the hotel key. The details are vivid and novel, and do a nice job painting a picture of the scene without diving into the R-rated specifics, accomplishing the amazing feat of producing a sex jam without any actual sex.

“Hotel Key” is a lightweight, uptempo summer song that has no designs are being anything more, but there’s also enough here in both the production and lyrics to withstand a deeper dissection without feeling too creepy or sleazy, and that’s an accomplishment in itself. If nothing else, the song avoids blunting Old Dominion’s trend towards respectability, and though it may not leave you with a lasting memory, it’ll at least leave you with a smile.

Rating: 6/10. Give this one a shot and see what you think.