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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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Castle Talk
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The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
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Sub Pop
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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Rocky Votolato

Rating: 7.5/10 ?

January 19, 2006
The human misery index of Rocky Votolato's solo recordings is at an all-time high. As sad and depressing as a bus station at 3 a.m., Makers, Votolato's fourth album of melancholic folk and fey indie-pop, is one dark night of the soul after another, and morning isn't coming anytime soon for any of his tragic characters.

Lyrically, Makers reads like a social worker's case files. There's the alcoholic in the country-tinged "Tennessee Train Tracks" who pleads for someone to "Come dry me out," while fending off ghosts and bad memories. Then there's the suicide pact detailed in the title track and the delirious insomniac of "Portland Is Leaving" who confesses, "I'm a punch line who's punch-drunk with my fist in a broken mirror." These are not happy, well-adjusted people, but then again, who really is? Rest assured, if you are indeed satisfied and content with your life, you can take comfort in the fact that you probably won't ever find yourself listening to Votolato and going, "Hey, that song's about me, isn't it?"

The ones who get it, who understand where Votolato is coming from, will. If you've ever lived in some gray Rust-Belt burg with limited possibilities, you can see yourself as the self-doubting, unemployed nobody of "The Night's Disguise" or the restless girl stuck in the old mining town, "Goldfield." If you've ever lived in fear of what a mean-spirited family member might do after a bad day at work, the dingy, white trash motel of "Where We Left Off," with its "Pink flamingos and light flickering from the TV screen," must seem like Utopia. And if you've ever walked in the rain tearing yourself up over a girl " … as pretty as [she is] cruel," that's you in "She Was Only In It For The Rain."

Patterning himself after singer-songwriters like Elliott Smith, Michael Penn and Damien Jurado, Votolato crafts gritty, hook-filled neo-folk melodies with the bare minimum of accompaniment. Mostly, it's just Votolato and an acoustic guitar - with a bit of plaintive piano, some harmonica, keyboards or lovely layered vocals for good measure - and that's enough for bittersweet, achingly beautiful gems like "Goldfield" and "White Daisy Passing." At times, Votolato echoes Simon and Garfunkel. His "The Boxer" is the misty "Uppers Aren't Necessary," with its clever, pinwheel finger picking and spare, melancholic atmosphere. "Streetlights" and "Tinfoil Hats" are catchier, more contemporary numbers with smart pop hooks that border on clichéd - think the Goo Goo Dolls - but never quite cross that line. When Votolato adds more instrumentation, he does so tastefully - see "She Was Only In It For The Rain," embellished with sharply plucked violin and foggy organ.

Some of Votolato's best work has a little twang to it, as in "The Night's Disguise." But in the bittersweet "Tennessee Train Tracks," perhaps his best song ever, Votolato doesn't just dip his toe in alt-country waters. He dives in headlong, like Ryan Adams in his work with The Cardinals, and the fullness of the arrangement is pure Nashville. Perhaps that's the native Texan coming out in him. Mostly, though, Makers rains for days, and in that way, it captures the gloomy feel of the Pacific Northwest, Votolato's second home. You'll hear traces of Dashboard Confessional-style emo in Makers - understandable considering how long he's fronted hibernating emo-baiters Waxwing. But Votolato has pretty much severed those influences from his solo work, preferring more spare, dank atmospheres and traditional, unplugged sounds.

Good for a lonely night of hard drinking or honest self-evaluation, Makers won't make you forget Elliott Smith or his gorgeous, sweeping harmonies. It just doesn't aim that high. But for what it is, namely a strong, if somewhat benign, collection of songs from a weather beaten soul who plays a mean guitar, Makers is a therapeutic listen with a gentle, if somewhat morose, melodic sensibility. Just be sure to keep the anti-depressants handy.

Reviewed by Peter Lindblad
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he\'ll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.

See other reviews by Peter Lindblad



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