Song of the Day: Rocky Votolato – Red River

photo by Brian Cullen

photo by Brian Cullen

Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part our Song of the Day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs, and recordings from independent artists that our DJs think you should hear. Each and every Friday we offer songs by local artists. Today‚Äôs selection, featured on the Afternoon Show with Kevin Cole, is “Red River” by Rocky Votolato from his 2010 release True Devotion on Barsuk Records.

Rocky Votolato – Red River (MP3)

Much has been made of Seattle songwriter Rocky Votolato’s recent and brief hiatus from music when he withdrew after touring behind his 2007 album, The Brag and Cuss, to fight his “inner demons,” of which anxiety and depression were the strongest. Sure, everyone loves a dramatic story, yet it’s not voyeuristic opportunism that practically demands every review of his new album mention this year of isolated introspection — because any listener of True Devotion will immediately pick up the songs’ thematic soul searching. For instance, it’s nearly impossible not to think of the artist’s coming to self-awareness in one of the album’s standouts, “Sparklers”:

Everything is right, Everything is wrong
Letting go is the best way to hold on
So watch the light dance in the dark until it’s gone
Sparklers only burn for so long

Perhaps in high schooler’ journals this sort of existential angst is common place if not cliched, but in the context of a full album, and more so, of one’s adult life, the need to find those answers — what should we be doing with our lives? what should we value? — rises to critical importance. Many people don’t find those answers and stop looking for them or even remember what the questions are. But for all of us, it’s the hero’s journey, the ultimate quest to understand of ourselves, and on True Devotion, Rocky Votolato finds himself in “the cave” moment of his life, at its nadir, confronting the very things he used to believe in and finding wholly different truths.

Life and death are just false shadows
That flicker in my mortal memory
To the one true light, I was lost and blind
But now I finally see what waited for me

So yeah, it’s a pretty serious album, a significant moment of one individual’s lifelong quest, but that doesn’t make it any less stunning or less rewarding. The songs themselves aren’t bleak or depressing at all because within them Rocky often finds some sort of light. Instrumentally, they may be polar opposites to the emo-punk of his former project, Waxwing — acoustic and rustic, in this case — but they’re neither delicate nor morose. Today’s Song of the Day, “Red River,” one of the more uptempo numbers, recounts semi-autobiographically his and his brother’s uprooting from their native Texas to the Pacific Northwest. It’s a song you could imagine performed solo on a guitar or with a full-on rocking backing band, one you could be nodding your head to or cathartically pumping your fist, which is just one example of a duality you’ll find repeated a hundred different ways in this album… but that’s another discussion entirely. No matter what, you’ll find that there’s something here to love, or to move you, or to pass a moment as you travel on your own path.

If you’re currently in Seattle, your path with Rocky won’t cross for a while yet. He recently played The Seattle Party at SXSW and is about to perform tonight at the Gladish Community & Cultural Center in Pullman, WA, before heading east on tour, eventually landing overseas for the month of May. You can keep up with his travels through his MySpace page and listen to more music there. For now, you should check out this performance from last summer as Rocky took part in the Songs for Eating and Drinking series at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle. From it, here’s his cover of “Spiritual” by Josh Haden (of the band Spain):

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