Rocky Votolato picks up where Makers left off. The Brag & Cuss has the same raw, emotive power as the previous release, but adds a fuller sound with the help of musicians that play with Sufjan Stevens, Cat Power, Hank Williams Jr., Pedro The Lion, and Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter. Throughout it all, Votolato’s unique vocal phrasing gives the songs an original sentiment.
Tom’s face, scraped up and decorated with a black eye, solemnly gazed at the pitcher of beer. The torn knuckles on his hand held his cigarette. Tom’s teeth made an indented ring around the filter. It had been almost a year since Tom & Lenny had seen each other. Now they sat with a pitcher of beer between them.
“Howya doin’,” asked Lenny. It was a casual question, but he didn’t intend for it to sound as offhand as it did.
As Tom’s chiseled face broke into a smile, Lenny noticed two things. First, a few chipped teeth and some random scars showed signs the continual fights. But behind his guarded eyes, Tom still had that golden look that made everyone around him feel comfortable. It was that same glow that helped create all the best and worst moments of Tom’s life. Lenny never noticed how his friend’s essence held the desire for the extremes of his character.
After the brief pause, Tom answered, “Not bad. I guess. You?”
Lenny kept up his end of the conversation. No matter where the discussion went, he kept looking at Tom. He was an anomaly. He was a simple man, a scrapper who always seemed to get in fights. But he was full of an energetic spark that could turn the most stalwart individual into a lemming. It reminded Lenny of an album to which he had been listening.
The Brag & Cuss by Rocky Votolato was full of countrified electric picking and bass heavy guitar lines. Those full tones were rounded out by solid drumming – from the toms of “The Wrong Side Of Reno” to the snare drum that steered “Before You Were Born” like an 18-wheeler on a Sunday afternoon. Votolato’s voice sounded strong even when he sang tenderly and gravely. Always front and center, it allowed the lyrics and vocal phrasing to nonchalantly drive the songs.
The album started “at the bottom of the bottle.” With its harmonica, countermelodic electric guitar, and Votolato’s weathered vocals, “Lilly White” declared, “Those days are gone now I know I had everything to do with that, because I’ve never been afraid of dying, never done much to avoid it/ These memories still keep me up at night.”
“You ever think about Marilyn?” Tom laid right into it.
“Not too much. I mean, a little.”
“You ever wonder how she’s doin’?”
“Tom, she’s married. She’s got two kids. She moved on with her life. You gotta do the same, man.” As he said these lines, Lenny thought of the song “Red Dragon Wishes.” It had hallowed guitar lines. The lyrics piled on top of each other. “Some mistakes can’t be undone/ It’ll never be like it was/ And wishing for it only makes it worse.”
“Yeah, I know. But it’s just, you know,” Tom seemed to be stammering for a thought. “Have you ever known you fucked up, but there’s nothing you can do to fix. You learn a lesson, but it’s all too late.”
“I know what you mean.” Now Lenny had the lyrics from “Postcard From Kentucky” on his mind. The song had a banjo that echoes the melody and lines he wanted to say to Tom, but he never he shouldn’t. “Maybe you can turn it around you say, ‘Shut up, you’re crazy, you can’t go back in time’/ I know but the rain it haunts my mind/ If you knew what it meant to keep your heart the same/ I swear to God you’d try harder not to change.”
As they talked, Lenny realized that Tom had grasped the reality that Marilyn was out of his life. He finally had a steady girlfriend. He became foreman at the plant. Things were starting to fall into line for him. It was as though he’d heard the chorus to “The Blue Rose.” On top of the acoustic guitar, organ, and lightly pulsated drum beats there were the lines “Surrender to the weight of what you gambled and lost/ But at least you don’t have to lie to yourself anymore.”
It was getting late for Lenny. He knew Tom had probably worked up a tab before he got there. As he got up to leave, Lenny pulled out his wallet and was going to throw a twenty onto the table to the majority of the tab.
“Put your money away. It’s been too long. This one’s on me. Thanks for meeting me tonight.”
As Lenny drove home that night, he thought of the final track of The Brag & Cuss, “Silver Trees.” The song was a beautiful duet with a bed of gentle acoustic guitar picking and harmonica. Like his evening with Tom, the album ended on a hopeful moment. “The invisible choir sings you a voiceless lesson/ So you'll always remember what grew out of decisions that death can't steal/ Lives that learned to give when it seemed there was nothing.”
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