For several years now, earnest singer-songwriter and father Rocky Votolato has called Seattle his home. But, technically, Votolato sprouted up in Texas long before playing in Waxwing, a not-quite-defunct-but-not-really-active band that also featured his brother, Cody, now a fixture in aggressive post-hardcore heroes The Blood Brothers. When not playing in Waxwing (or being a daddy), Votolato does the solo thing, and when he does, his Texas roots start to show. His earnest songwriting style, though one that draws many similarities to legendary Pac-Northwesterners such as Elliott Smith, carries with it a bit of twang, the likes of which may find him fans among the No Depression crowd as well.
Makers, Votolato’s latest full-length, is built on a solid foundation of rootsy Americana, which has already found names like Earle and Springsteen tossed his way. Though both comparisons are certainly warranted, Votolato’s style is a tad more laid back and fuzzy, with no over-the-top py-rock-technics of an E Street Band. Makers‘ leadoff track, “White Daisy Passing,” is rich in lyrical imagery, taking the listener past an old apartment and through rainy streets before Votolato sweetly declares in his gentle rasp, “All I want to do is turn around/I’m going down to sleep on the bottom of the ocean.” Melodically, it’s a sort of warm and familiar sound that’s hard not to love.
Later on, particularly in “The Night’s Disguise” and “She Was Only In It For the Rain,” Votolato tries his hand at a more rugged sound. And, unsurprisingly, he succeeds. In the former, Votolato sings with a dark hopelessness (“No I’m not doing alright/I’m just as stupid and desperate as I’ve always been“), while the latter is a mandolin-plucking dirge rife with misanthropy:
Here’s the first of many songs you wanted me to write
I hope to God you like it
It’s as pretty as it is cruel
Among Votolato’s stripped-down acoustic arrangements is the brief but rocking full-band arrangement of “Tennessee Train Tracks.” Though Votolato needs little extra instrumentation to truly shine, this song is particularly wonderful, rocking like vintage Whiskeytown or Son Volt, lap steels weeping under Rocky’s gorgeously gravelly throat. It’s a fleeting height on an album of graciously subdued gems, but it’s a damn fine peak. That said, it’s hard to set it aside as the best on the album, as there are so many beautiful and memorable songs on this excellent set. The get-outta-Dodge tale of “Goldfield” is another standout, as is the haunting climax of “Where We Left Off.” I can think of very few songs on this album that aren’t absolutely stunning.
Votolato’s North and Southwestern homes have come to a lovely meeting point on Makers. It finds rainclouds hovering over dry, dusty landscapes as sweet, romantic odes cross paths with whiskey-soaked (hence the title) working class tales. Votolato makes honest, American music, and when so many artists put so much effort into pretense, it’s refreshing to hear something so uniquely genuine.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.