Rocky Votolato grew up in rural Frost, Texas, the son of a member of local motorcycle gang the Scorpions. Though he grew up on a steady diet of country music, his mother moved the family to Seattle in Votolato’s early teens, and he began playing in various punk and indie groups before forming the Fugazi-indebted Waxwing with his younger brother Cody (also of erstwhile spazz-rockers the Blood Brothers). While Waxwing was still active, Rocky began playing quieter, acoustic-based music under his own name. The country sensibilities of his youth bumped up against the emotional bloodletting of his more adenoidal work, leaving sandpaper-voiced melodies and gentle acoustic support fleshed out combined with vivid, imagistic lyrics.
Votolato’s most recent album, Television of Saints is his first released without a record label, though the change in distribution isn’t reflected in the content: this is a Rocky Votolato album through and through, from the amiable vocal delivery to the relaxed strumming and minimal accompaniment. To his credit, the best elements of his success remain intact: Votolato remains firmly in the “show, don’t tell” school of songwriting (there’s a lovely string of images in “St. Louis”: “White German Shepherd / Trailer park / Dirt yard and a chain link fence”) and his melodies are still accessible and unadorned. There are also some nice touches of the avant-garde – the electric guitar on “Crooked Arrows” flirts with dissonance at times – that keep the album from sinking too much into maudlin coffeehouse sentiment.
The biggest problem with Television of Saints is that it’s generic and doesn’t break much new ground for Votolato. Now, Votolato has hardly made a career out of reinvention – he’s been working in this same milieu for quite some time – but I suspect that the somewhat shoestring budget of Saints (the album was largely funded through Kickstarter donations, and was put together for under $40,000) led to some corner-cutting in the songwriting, or at the very least, some “That’s good enough” in the arrangements. The songs are consistent to say the best and positively same-y to say the worst, and though Votolato is a charming, personable singer, his voice isn’t exactly agile or varied enough from track to track to carry the scant arrangements. There are some lovely moments though on Saints: the aforementioned “St. Louis”, “Fool’s Gold”, and “Sunlight” all offer pleasing if toothless charms, and “Little Spring” moves at a sprightly pace and offers some Simon and Garfunkel-esque, low-key harmonizing. “Instrument” is one of the full-band tracks, and it approaches intensity more than any other of the album’s tracks, thanks in part to a yearning vocal performance and the band’s casual but firm support.
“Pleasing” is probably the ultimate adjective apply to Votolato’s music: he’s not a particularly challenging songwriter, nor is he given to bombast or grandiose statements. He doesn’t put on airs, and he’s been mining roughly the same finely textured emotional territory for years now. But his earnestness is his biggest selling point: he doesn’t need to be a Tom Waits or a Bob Dylan, assuming multiple voices and characters or telling stories from every conceivable point of view. Rather, he remains who’s he’s always been, and longtime fans will no doubt respond to that. But with such a copacetic approach to music-making, it’s unlikely that he’ll be doing anything but preaching to the converted for quite some time.