The Weepies Talk Rocky Votolato’s Hospital Handshakes

The Weepies had never heard Rocky Votolato's music before this album. Now they're fans.

We’ve spent the last eighteen months making a record of our own, so we haven’t really delved into any new music in a while. We had heard a lot about the Seattle-based songwriter Rocky Votolato, but had never given him a real listen before taking this assignment, so this was our first time hearing one of his records.

Our first impressions of Rocky Votolato after listening to Hospital Handshakes were “writerly,” “great vibe” and “consistent production.” He’s clearly a singer-songwriter-type with rock & roll roots, and he has a nice, emotive indie-rock voice. We’re fans.

The album opens with “Boxcutter,” which is full of personality, subtle musicality and nature metaphors:

The madness keeps rushing in mountain stream music
The water singing over rocks and under bridges
If you could let go of the past
I could hold you in my arms forever

This song reminds us a little of Death Cab for Cutie, in a good way, which is not that big of a surprise considering that Chris Walla, a former member of that band, produced this album. There is also a sort of intimate Echo and the Bunnymen/Roxy Music-style atmospheric comfort-music approach. Then there’s “The Hereafter,” which features some tasteful synth drums. Even at this early point in the record, Votolato’s vibe is really undeniable, and this is clearly already a good album. When you’ve got a strong flow going by the second song, you’re in good shape.

Votolato is clearly focused on creating a whole album rather than just a collection of tracks, which makes this is an easy record to leave on while going about your day. Think Paul Westerberg in terms of consistency — the whole thing is of a piece, and he’s not going to let you down anywhere along the line. “So Unexpected” has a simple but compelling arrangement and one of the loveliest melodies on the album, while “A New Son” is simply a good indie-rock song with smart lyrics. (“I buzz and click and shake/I’m never asleep/I’m barely awake/Am I alone or alive/Will I be alright?”)

Named for the renowned thirteenth-century Sufi poet, “Rumi” sounds sort of like a Gin Blossoms sound poem, while “White-Knuckles” finds Votolato’s voice breaking with emotion very much like that band’s singer Robin Wilson’s did on the huge ’90s hit “Hey Jealousy.”  Hospital Handshakes gets more introspective towards the end with the acoustic “Sawdust and Shavings.” It’s a very evocative song (“You walk from the tavern out into the streets/Drinking your passion, and stumble in disgrace”), and along with closer, “The Finish Line,” it brings to mind a lighter version of Bruce Springsteen’s bleak, stripped-down Nebraska (1982). These two songs could definitely have soundtracked a dramatic Sons of Anarchy scene — so take note, music supervisors.

If you’ve heard Rocky Votolato before, we suspect you’re used to a certain standard of consistency, which he meets here on Hospital Handshakes. If you’ve never heard Votolato’s music, but like jangly alt-rock along the lines of Gin Blossoms, Conor Oberst or Death Cab for Cutie, it’s definitely worth a listen: good voice, good production, good songs. Put it on while you’re driving.

Singer/songwriters Deb Talan and Steve Tannen began writing together the night they met and soon formed the Weepies. On the strength of their simple yet insightful songwriting and distinctive harmonies, they quietly sold more than a million records, with over 17 million streams on Spotify and 20 million views on YouTube. They married and had three children, rarely touring but continuing to release their music, five records over seven years. Their new album Sirens is available now. You can follow them on Twitter here.