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Rocky Votolato’s smooth, bottle-aged music

‘Makers’ is an amazing collection of low­-key, rootsy and often deeply romantic songs written as if Votolato was a grizzled 50-something Austin troubadour rather than the late 20s Seattle ex-punk that he is. By Rob Neill
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Read the record company’s bio of Rocky Votolato, and you’d think he was applying for head of the local neighborhood watch — solid family man, humble, friendly. Yet his best, and most recent, album is named after a brand of bourbon and half the songs are about drinking.

So which guy is he?

Maybe it’s too soon to ask in a discussion between strangers, but Votolato, an affable sort, chuckles nervously and offers, “I'm a little bit of both. It's a conflicted existence. When I wrote the songs I spent two years out on the road trying to establish myself. I was drinking a lot on that tour.”

The result, the boozily titled “Makers,” is an amazing collection of low­-key, rootsy and often deeply romantic songs written as if Votolato was a grizzled 50-something Austin troubadour rather than the late 20s Seattle ex-punk that he is.

He’s similar to early Tim Easton (“I need to listen to him. Never have and people keep bringing him up.”) or a grittier version of Josh Ritter.

From the languid almost-rock of “Tennessee Train Tracks,” to the anguished ballad “The Night’s Disguise,” or the jangle of “Uppers Aren’t Necessary” — which will have listeners grabbing the CD case to make sure it’s not an obscure Simon and Garfunkel cover (it’s not) — “Makers” is an old-soul collection of songs performed with sparse arrangements, last-call vocals and Votolato’s distinctive lyrics. Lyrics which are filled with enough imagery that some could stand as prose.

Take the aforementioned “Disguise,” which has the lyrics: “Get your self all prettied up my love / Come here close let me tie that ironed ribbon / On the dress I bought you, it’s the perfect one / For the perfect night for the perfect woman.”

“Ironed,” eh? A nice detail. So are his songs, which are filled with such details, fiction or real?

“Sort of both,” he says. The fiction can be done “if you’re a storyteller. I mean most writers’ first novel is a thinly masked version of their own life.

“[‘Disguise’] was one of the earlier ones I wrote. It’s very real. There is a dress.”

Not that Votolato is over-serious about his work. “Tinfoil Hats” delivers on the promise of its title’s levity. The faux-novelty-song-as-actual-serious-mash-note approach may have been the same tone Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy was gunning for when he wrote “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” Only difference? Over the playful strumming and honking harmonica Votolato actually nails it with these words: “He reminded me the only way / To keep aliens from reading your mind / Is to wear a tinfoil hat friend and wear it all the time / Life keeps on changingTell it to stay still but it won’t listen/ I just want you near me, like you are now, for good.”

And this was a guy who, only two solo records ago was singing about smashing a guy’s knees with a baseball bat (in “A Discourse on Killing,” from his 2003 EP “The Light and Sound” — a worthy effort, but not “Makers”). Votolato credits two things for his current, gentler approach: Family and the fact that he’s already done “the punk rock thing” years ago in the emo-esque band “Waxwing.”

With marriage and kids “I feel like I've finally started to grow up a little bit. There has been a lot of growing up and correcting problems. With a family, that just sort of happens over time. It just sort of slows things down and you see what matters.”

And with music “it's not about having this cathartic experience anymore. [In Waxwing] it was about keeping myself alive. That's why I was in a punk band, I needed something to say instead of doing something self destructive. I don’t need that all the time any more.”

A problem, of course, is how to the get word out on “Makers.” Outside of Nashville’s vapid “Young Country” format, Votolato might actually be working in the most dreck-filled genre in American music: The Literate Singer-Songwriter. What sets him apart?

His shows off his easy laugh again. “I’m not sure. It's intimidating. I mean I have listened to too much of that. There is a slew of [stuff out there]. Maybe it’s a lack of ambition. I just have a quiet thing going.”

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