It seems today that a simple, acoustic guitar-slinging troubadour needs more than a honey-tinged voice and simple accompaniment to make a splash in the music industry. He or she also needs a host of production tricks, a stylist, etc. The incredibly refreshing simplicity of Rocky Votolato’s new album means that there are absolutely no bells or whistles included. Nary a thing resembling a bell or a whistle is present. Unless you consider harmonicas bell-like. It may not make a huge impact on the industry, but it demonstrates that simplicity is a viable option for accomplished songwriters.
When music is stripped bare, the songs become the focus. The lyrics and melodies must be impeccable because there are no extras to distract the listener. Sure, Votolato includes the occasional adornment. For instance, the laid back, handmade sound of the percussion and harmonica on “Portland is Leaving” are included. However, they aren’t distractions used to mask crappy songwriting. They merely fill in the blanks, as good arrangements should. Throughout the CD, the arrangements almost always hit the right notes, becoming busy when advantageous, but mostly remaining as relaxed as cold lemonade on a summer afternoon.
The opener is a gem. It’s just Rocky, his guitar, and a few harmonies (the only vocals on the album not attributed to the artist). The sweetness is sincere, if not a little sappy, but the words work with the song’s structure. The song could as easily please my parents’ taste for ‘60s pop as it could the taste of current folk revivalists. The same timelessness applies, except for the title, to “Uppers Aren’t Necessary”. It’s an up-tempo finger picking tune with a tight vocal harmony that would fit on early Simon and Garfunkel records.
Sometimes Votolato shifts gears and writes in a country vein. His voice even shreds in a mimicking of cigarette smoking barroom belters. “Where We Left Off” basks in darkness and film noir mystery. The pounding bass drum and screeching guitar lend to an amazing atmosphere and bridge the gap between freaky and wholesome, like a David Lynch movie. “Tinfoil Hats” is also a nice break from the common with paranoid alien invasion lyrics and triplet arpeggios, coupled with gloriously ragged harmonica playing.
“She Was Only in It for the Rain” is the only song not written by Votolato; instead it is credited to Piss Pissedoffherson. Mr. Pissedoffherson is undoubtedly a Votolato pseudonym, but the name change seems to give Votolato license to write the line, “You’re as pretty as you are cruel.” He sings this jab over a backing track that sounds fresh from the back porch.
In most cases, all of these formulae work excellently. One of the least convincing songs is also one of the most fully realized instrumentally. “Tennessee Train Tracks” reprises alt-country with a rhythm section and lap steel. Unfortunately, the song is not up to the same standards as previous tracks. It’s the perfect example of busyness showcasing the song’s weakness, simply on the level of songwriting. Votolato has an excellent voice and the vocal delivery that can make girls swoon and make guys purchase his music in order to make their girls swoon. His songwriting is strong enough to stand on its own, and that’s rare these days. By the end of it, you may be craving a bell or a whistle, and that’s only natural. But resist the temptation.