The singer-songwriter known for gentle acoustics adds a backing band, but maintains a straight-down-the-middle stance on his latest release.
Rocky Votolato sweetly and subtly introduced himself to me with "White Daisy Passing", a lovely song off the singer-songwriter's last album, Makers, that captured a certain wistfulness. Votolato does that sensitive male singer-songwriter thing in the vein of Damien Rice, and like Rice, he's more musically conservative than other alt-folkers like Sparklehorse and Josh Ritter. Those artists have some spark -- call it the X-factor, or just call it robustness of musicianship -- that propel them to be yearly favourites. It's difficult to imagine Votolato filling that post: neat though some of his songs are, as a collection they leave a less than strong impression.
Makers, Votolato's Barsuk debut, raised the singer's profile -- though the album continued to be based around little more than his voice and acoustic guitar, it garnered a generally positive response. There's a clear difference between that album and The Brag and Cuss: Votolato's got a band. The guys Votolato collected to record with include musicians who've toured with Sufjan Stevens, Cat Power, as well as Pedro the Lion's Casey Foubert (who's worked with Votolato before) -- in other words, a pretty accomplished lot. The result, perhaps unsurprisingly, is musically tight without ever calling attention to the musicians themselves. The cohesion's almost palpable on The Brag and Cuss, which only means that it sounds so smooth you often forget there are four other people (in addition to Votolato) buried in the sound. But it's there -- in the harmonica punctuation on "Lily White", or "The Old Holland"'s subtle background of Hammond organ, repeated as a kind of atmospheric backdrop for much of the album. The occasional banjos and bending guitars give the album a much more consistent country feel, the kind of folky country that Votolato's always skirted in the past, here fully engaged.
Thematically, here perhaps more than other Votolato releases, whiskey's a constant companion, a medicine and a catalyst for feelings of nostalgia and remorse. From the first song, the conditions are set: "On my way back from a place of no recovering … Broken teeth and broken nose and ten years at the bottom of a bottle". On the first single, "Postcard from Kentucky", it's: "Jack Daniels in one hand / Basic Light in the other / My two best friends for so long". And later, on "Your Darkest Eyes", with a plain-spokenness that approaches cliche: "I'm drinking to kill the pain, trying to stay out of a fight but the liquor it won't let me / The only thing it's killing now is me". It may be lyrical laziness to rely on this automatic signifier of self-reflection again and again, but Votolato comes close to justifying the conceit on the gentle, swung "Whiskey Straight". The understated song is classic folk in execution, little more than a resonant acoustic guitar and Votolato's smooth voice -- but it works not because of the whiskey, which is hardly mentioned in the song at all, but from the vivid sketch of sordid regret. Throughout The Brag & Cuss, though, none of this whiskey talk has the simplicity or power of the Hold Steady's "Citrus", and I wished for it: "Hey citrus, hey liquor, I love it when you touch each other / Hey whiskey, hey ginger, I come to you with rigid fingers".
The rest of Votolato's lyrics are full of memory and regret, a kind of sad, drunken reminiscence that can be powerful but can also veer towards inconsequentiality. He has a conversational writing style that will strike some as plain-spoken -- "There's an anchor sinking in the sound of a sense of lack that follows you around", e.g. -- but has its own rough-hewn poetry. However, often as soon as he's established an interesting image ("I built a workshop to find myself where I can dig in the corners climbing spider webs") it's brought unceremoniously back towards cliché ("It's a Polaroid cemetery of every look you've ever given me").
The music does benefit from the expanded instrumentation, though. The banjo mirroring of the vocal line on "Postcards from Kentucky" is momentarily Sufjan-esque, and the chugging folk percussion of "Before You Were Born" lifts the mood considerably. The upbeat numbers are the easiest to like, in the end: yes, the soft-rock percussion and layered vocals sound most like Paul Simon, and there's not really anything here you can say is new, particularly, but the expanded palette is -- well, just a bit more interesting.
Rocky Votolato is, by now, more than familiar with what it takes to write a solid folk-rock song. He's earnest and, in a limited way, reveals a sad kind of truth, and there's real emotion in a depressive ballad like "Silver Trees". But even with the support of these undoubtedly professional musicians, his songs still fall squarely in the middle of the road, and that will always limit the singer's appeal to those looking for anything more adventurous than whiskey-sodden acoustics.