“A great city is not to be confounded with a populous one.”
You have to applaud Viva Voce for its effort. Formed in 1998 around husband and wife Kevin and Anita Robinson, the twosome got the ball rolling in Alabama and then spent a little time in Nashville before moving to Portland in 2001. They have since planted deep roots in the community, becoming something of a fixture in the Pacific Northwest scene.
The duo’s first label went into liquidation shortly after releasing its 1998 debut Hooray For Now, which resulted in the pair taking some home time to regroup and nurse a young family, but they got back on the horse. In 2003, the band released the born-again debut Lovers Lead The Way on its own label and in conjunction with Asthmatic Kitty. The Heat Can Melt Your Brain was released on Minty Fresh the next year. The band then scored opening slots touring with the Shins and Jimmy Eat World, while its next album Get Yr Blood Sucked Out saw release by the notable Barsuk label. Viva Voce now slowly spirals outward, getting bigger and bigger every year, and it has all been built on the family Robinson’s own gumption and grit.
Reflecting its growth, former touring members Corrina Repp and Evan Railton were added recently to the permanent lineup, and the band’s sound has evolved. While Lovers Lead The Way-era Viva Voce often sided with a chill, ethereal, downtempo rock, its fifth album and second for Barsuk, Rose City, is decidedly more upbeat and driven. The raunchy retro rock distortion, inspired sonic experimentation and compelling swagger of Get Yr Blood Sucked Out has been brushed aside for a glossier Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or a less-pretentious Dandy Warhols sound.
To be honest, it does not give you much to sink your teeth into. Many tracks are defined by a road-trip rhythm section who chugs along at a brisk pace, leaving no time or inkling for contemplation. The opening “Devotion” does this, with a driving beat pushing bits of tambourine, acoustic guitar, modest sound effects, shoegaze guitar loops and Kevin’s vocals almost out of its comfort zone, but not in a memorable fashion. “Die A Little” follows it with almost the same formula—except it features Anita’s vocals and her cooing chorus instead of Kevin’s husky grumble. It’s not until “Octavio” that the album starts to develop its own inviting personality.
“Octavio” has more of a plodding beat, which allows it more space to breathe. The spacey reverb on Anita and Kevin’s vocals comes through, along with an odd, filtered, tin can percussion sound that starts the track and underpins it throughout. The track’s melodic progression is able to make an abrupt, distinct yet natural change for the chorus that would not have been possible on the far more cluttered “Devotion”. Viva Voce is at its best not when they rock out but when they jam. “Red Letter Day” follows suit with a ‘50s-rock-style progression and double-tracked male/female vocals.
The rest of the album is rather spotty. “Good As Gold” comes off lame and uninspired, like something you’d expect to hear from Bryan Adams or on a new Tom Petty album (with all due respect to Petty’s back catalogue). Title track “Rose City” chugs away like the two opening numbers, and it’s forgettable except for the choice lyrics about the band’s adopted hometown. “Tornado Alley” doesn’t stand out either, as it bridges the gap between Sheryl Crow and the Apples in Stereo.
With its lo-fi drum-machine beat and Anita’s densely layered vocals, “Flora” is about the only notable track in the second half, and it’s similar to the anachronistic cowboy elements of Pepe Deluxé‘s later works. The album-closing “The Slow Fade” performs its role well, driven by piano, vegetable shakers, acoustic guitar and warm bass set to a relaxed tempo, with bit of fiddle and field recordings of wind chimes and tinkling glass thrown in for flavor. This one wouldn’t be out of place on a classic George Harrison record.
Despite such mix-tape worthy moments, Rose City is one of the band’s weakest overall efforts yet. For a band who appears to be at least in their 30s and is noted for its almost constant touring, the quartet may need time to grow together before it can get to where it should be. Either way, Viva Voce needs to keep pushing, to become more complex rather than simply faster. We know the band has the work ethic in place to improve. All we need to see now is some results.