Unsung Classics, Part 2
Rocky Votolato, as well as having a name that you’re not likely to forget in a hurry, has been working tirelessly in the music industry since roundabout the late nineties. […]
Rocky Votolato, as well as having a name that you’re not likely to forget in a hurry, has been working tirelessly in the music industry since roundabout the late nineties. He began in Waxwing, an excellent alternative rock quartet who I will almost definitely cover at some point, but the band dissolved before making any real headway. However, he has since found favour by virtue of his solo act, and it is an album from his own personal oeuvre that we examine this week:
Suicide Medicine by Rocky Votolato, 2003, Second Nature Recordings
In spite of what is a grim title, Suicide Medicine is a beautiful record. Grounded in Votolato’s love of classic folk, it is anchored by his rich, human voice and strong acoustic guitar work, but at the same time infused with an energy and intensity carried over from his punk rock days that makes the whole album sparkle. As well as the traditional one-man-and-a-guitar songs, Votolato is often backed by a small band, which gives power and immediacy to more rocking cuts such as ‘Every Red Cent’ and ‘The Light and the Sound’. Suicide Medicine wholly transcends the slushy drudgery of weaker efforts by far less accomplished singer-songwriters (Ed Sheeran, I’m looking in your direction).
The usual sentimentality and wistfulness typical of this genre is trumped through Votolato’s strong lyrics and tackling of broader issues than relationships; on ‘Automatic Rifle’, he weaves a tale based on the murder-suicide of Rachel Levy and Ayat al-Akhras, the lyrics striking just as hard as the violence depicted within the song’s borders; “Cause open eyes will be / Infected by politics / And even a smart girl can end up / With a bomb strapped to her chest.” Elsewhere, the more up-tempo ‘The Light and the Sound’ confronts wage slavery and frustration; “I know it’s comfortable to go back to sleep / Take a look at what you’ve been lying in / Before you wake up in search of your paycheck death.” The title track and ‘Alabaster’ also stand out particularly – both are little more than Votolato, his acoustic guitar, and a harmonica in the latter’s case, yet they pack far more authentic emotional punch than any swollen pop ballad; ‘Suicide Medicine’ features an absolutely outstanding vocal by Votolato that sends shivers down your spine. The album rises and falls like breaking waves, ending with the gorgeous ‘Mix-Tapes/Cell Mates’.
Suicide Medicine works so well because it feels genuine. The listener feels embraced and invited into an atmosphere that, although not especially joyous, is truly captivating. It can wake you up in the morning and yet provide a soundtrack to the quietest of nights. It is an honest, compelling work, propelled by Votolato’s warm vocals that are not rendered anodyne through over-production, and one that deserves a place in anyone’s record collection. Let it soak into your bones, and become a record that you retreat to time and time again.
That’s all, folks, see you next week!