Rocky Votolato could have easily followed his muse in any number of directions. Hailing from a small Texas town, he could have become a country singer who hailed the virtues of small town life and the roads that lead away. His name would befit that of a rough and tumble fighter, had he opted to go, say, the wrestling route. Heavily influenced by the sounds of punk and hardcore, he could have gone insurgent regardless, forsaking melody for the sake of mayhem. In fact, he nearly did just that after launching his career with Waxwing, a band that won a local following among the discriminating Seattle crowd while gaining a small but significant national fan base as well.
Nevertheless, Votolato really didn’t come into his own until he went independent in 1999 and tempered the harder elements of his earlier influences with the equally emphatic approach that characterizes the seven previous solo outings he’s released over the past 15 years. He’s also reinforced his resume with various production credits and even an occasional acting stint.
Votolato’s new album, inexplicably titled Hospital Handshakes, offers yet another example of his considerable skills, a collection of songs that fires up an urgency that extends from first song to last. The surging tempo that underscores “Royal”—which finds him repeating the phrase “I wish I was a cannonball”—suggests a certain underlying tension crying to let loose. “White Knuckles” finds him clenching his fists in a manner consistent with its title, its strum and tumble qualifying it for a stadium shout-out. And when Votolato wails “I’ve wasted so much time” on “Rumi”, one of the most stirring songs in an album filled with explosive anthems, the emotion is unmistakable.
Ably produced by Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla, Hospital Handshakes may seem like it’s cut from the fiber of rage and rebellion, and even though in tone and temperament it often leans that way, the themes focus instead on healing, longing and finding a sense of purpose in life in a world where clarity and direction can often seem muddled. “Sawdust & Shavings”, the album’s most reflective offering, and the track that follows, “So Unexpected”, convey those desires with the full flush of conviction and emotion, but it’s one song in particular—that being “This Is My Work”, a number that falls near the end of the album—which expresses it best. “I want to be here for you,” Votolato declares, leaving no doubt as to the hopes that he still harbors.
It goes without saying that drive and determination, coupled with muscular melodies, have always been a defining element in rock ‘n’ roll, a sound first defined by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, later, the Stones, Springsteen, the Clash, and so many different upstarts of independent origin. Likewise, taking the tack that he does here, Rocky Votolato affirms he follows a similar musical mantra. More importantly, he defines his intent, doing so in such a way that hopefully will bring him the wider recognition that he’s earned and deserves. Hospital Handshakes is a milestone in Votolato’s career and one that would do well to serve as a springboard for all his efforts going forward.
// Notes from the Road
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