heavy rotation: voxtrot – raised by wolves & mothers, sisters, daughters & wives

“heavy rotation” took a hiatus that it shouldn’t have.  to compensate for this error, this month’s segment examines two works instead of one, albeit works that complement one another quite well.  again, all apologies.

around this time last year, i published a testimonial detailing my personal experience with and love for the now-defunct texas indie-pop outfit voxtrot.  you can read that account here, and you can rest assured that those sentiments are still relevant.  voxtrot’s music was consistently intellectual on both major musical fronts and demonstrated the nearly infinite possibilities within relatively slim confines.  that may seem like a paradoxical notion, but if you’ve noticed my critiques of albums you’ll have noticed that i’m a huge sucker for an expansive palate.  i’m more likely to bite on an album that has an apparent unified aesthetic with hidden nuances waiting to be found than i am to take on an ambitious album that courageously bounds in six or seven distinct directions.  voxtrot’s basic musical identity was all but completely formed from the get-go, and it really only took one ep for it to solidify.

2005’s raised by wolves is twenty-three minutes of pure, well-crafted pop music.  such purity and devotion to a single genre is rare to find now and certainly wasn’t common nearly ten years ago, but what always strikes me is the utter aplomb this ep contains.  ramesh srivastava nearly shows his full lyrical hand on the opening lines of the ep’s title track, instantly spouting metaphors and embarking on a long and detailed narration, his first of many.  the subsequent song, “the start of something,” is a piece of work that still holds up as one of the best pop songs i’ve ever heard, four years after it graced my ears for the first time.  its chord progression and overall structure are strikingly simple, allowing srivastava to weave a complex confessional that borders on creepy over a conventional verse-chorus format.  underneath is a jangly guitar line bolstered by piano stabs and persistent drums, creating the bare-bones foundation of voxtrot’s indie pop palate.  the guitar interlude that creeps in towards the middle is infectious to say the least, and the piano gets more ambitious during the third verse, adding subtle fills in between cadential points.  the clincher for me is always the soft cello that enters during the build to the coda, and the mournful guitar slides that eventually are layered on top.

the most underwhelming moment on raised by wolves unfortunately comes right in the middle, but it highlights the only slight growing pain voxtrot needed to overcome.  “missing pieces” just feels too long; clocking in at over five minutes, the song could easily strip away some of the instrumental build-up without sacrificing an important srivastava verse.  luckily, the band redeems themselves with “long haul,” a relaxing mid-tempo jam with round bell tones, chiming guitar arpeggios, and a prominent bass line.  musically, it’s voxtrot’s most mature effort on the entire ep.  raised by wolves ends solidly with “wrecking force,” the aggression of the tube-driven guitars compensating for the song’s somewhat-suspect length.  although not without its fair share of hiccups, raised by wolves proved to be an above-average first outing for voxtrot, and one that showed ample room for growth.

the following year found voxtrot releasing their second effort, mothers, sisters, daughters & wives.  whether or not the title’s absent oxford comma was intentional remains unclear, but the ep certainly showed marked improvements in the band’s sound.  while all five songs on raised by wolves were at least four minutes long, the quintet on mothers, sisters, daughters & wives is comparatively short; only two tracks venture beyond the four-minute mark, putting the collection more squarely within the confines of traditional pop.  the ep begins in a similar fashion, with an ambitious title track, but it’s easy to tell that the music is more finely woven, with stacks of interplaying guitars and independent bass lines that almost function as countermelodies.  this intricacy continues with “fast asleep,” a song that crams arpeggios and pianos effortlessly into a sub-three-minute setting, and one that has the gall to divert sharply to an unpredicted orchestral coda.  all the tropes remain without voxtrot running the risk of losing its luster.

one of srivastava’s best turns as a lyricist occurs on “rise up in the dirt,” a cautionary tale about the perils of adulthood and society’s expectations.  i’ve always maintained that srivastava’s lyrics are more prose than they are poetry, as if his personal journal was somehow inadvertently bound by meter and rhythm.  it’s unclear whether he is assuming the role of a character or is actually speaking of himself on “rise up in the dirt,” but lines like “it seems that we used to live like rebels / but now we get scared like our parents” and the simple statement of “i believe in love, i’m married to my work” resonate with listeners, no matter how uncomfortable the truth may be.  although he traces a dark and unsatisfying reality, srivastava’s unabashed romanticism can’t help but sneak in at the end of the song, affirming that “somewhere in the darkness / you will find love baby / you will find love” and perhaps one will return to a state of youth as well.

this flirtation with polarity, with examining personal apocalypses under the pretense of creating pop songs, continues on “four long days,” one of the bleaker songs in voxtrot’s catalogue.  slide guitar laments and a string section reflect the melancholy of srivastava’s lyrics, which contain fantastically chilling turns such as “watching tv, and flirting with fate / he drank my cold soul under the table” and the abrupt closing line “and then you feel the hot sun beating down, and you start to cry,” leaving this tortured couple’s story as confusing and unresolved as it was to begin with.

“soft & warm” is the ep’s closing number and consistently rivals “the start of something” as voxtrot’s magnum opus.  the piano-driven track is unabashed in its instrumentation choices, employing string sections alongside bombastic, fuzzed-out bass lines and weaving trombone melodic figures through jangly guitar riffs.  the lyrics are full of colloquials, metaphors, and every other trademark srivastava consciously uses, but the song’s meaning is painfully obvious: it’s an examination of a failed relationship that hasn’t yet been terminated, punctuated by the heartbreaking line “baby i’d leave you for the person you used to be.”

if you’ve taken the time to read the other op/ed i’ve written about voxtrot (hyperlinked again here for convenience), you know that these songs – this collection specifically – stir up very vivid images of the past.  typically, they haven’t been images that i’ve coped well with, but as i get older and become more and more removed from that situation, these songs make more sense to me, and i start to embody them in new, perhaps more sensible ways.  voxtrot is a gem of the pop world that remains surprisingly hidden, and everyone would do well to track down their catalogue.  alliterations and musical integrity aside, their work showcases basic human emotion that is incredibly easy to identify with.  at the very least, the songs will make you dance.

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