Rocky Votolato

Hospital Handshakes

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The Texas-born, Seattle-based singer/songwriter Rocky Votolato hasn't released anything resembling a rock & roll record since 2007's Brag & Cuss, but there were good reasons for it. After enduring a deep depression and crippling self-doubt, his music at the time had to reflect where he was. That said, these experiences resulted in two of his finest albums -- 2010's True Devotion and the self-issued Television of Saints from 2012. They reflected the juxtaposition of and transition from who he perceived himself to be, and who he discovered he is. To that end, Hospital Handshakes marks the third -- and most electric -- part of an unintended trilogy. It was produced by former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, with a band that includes Votolato's brother Cody on guitar, bassist Eric Corson, drummer Andy Lum, and Casey Foubert on various instruments. The title track gently and tentatively coaxes the singer from the shadows: "Is this an exercise or an exorcism?...In my mind I'm a patient with no patience..." before the bridge ramps up with an explosion of electric guitars and fingerpicked acoustics. Votolato doesn't hurry, his self-examination is poignant yet carefully exposed as the urgency of the instrumentation pushes him forward to reveal more: "My father, sent me to my mother/not to be punched no more…We must each be broken if we're ever to be made new again." And this sums up the album's treatise: that the protagonist's period of reflection and transition has been -- sometimes unbeknownst to him -- for the purpose of experiencing wholeness. Though "Rumi"'s lyrics reflect on the wisdom (and words) of the mystic Sufi poet, it's a scorching rock anthem with blistering guitars, cracking tom-toms, and an irresistible hook. "White Knuckles" commences with tense acoustic guitars before other instruments and the lyric grab hold and he vows to move on from defeat, usury, and betrayal. In "Royal," he juxtaposes past and present, metaphor and desire, inside a delirious, ache-inducing pop melody. In the shuffling, midtempo ballad "So Unexpected," Votolato confesses either to God, his beloved, or himself in a mirror: "My mind is no longer an abandoned building….You have gotten my sorry I abandoned you. I was broken wide open." The closer, "This Is My Work," remotely touches on Americana in a silvery pop/rock melody. It is a love song that expresses gratitude and devotion; it's sung with a passion and unwavering purpose and, like the album it closes, stands with the songwriter's best work. Hospital Handshakes offers tarnished but steely hope forged from an extended period in a personal and spiritual wilderness. Its determination marks the end of this transition (and trilogy) and exposes a new and open road that will likely serve as instructive to the listener as it did the songwriter.

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