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Popularity Medicine 

For a minute, I thought I had more MySpace friends than Rocky Votolato. That felt pretty good, despite the fact that it didn't look like he was trying very hard. The page only had one song to stream, a plaintive twangy affair called "Streetlights" from the middle of his new album, Makers. Not bad, but far from the best song on the album. Dude's got an album out on Barsuk Records (Death Cab's old label), and a MySpace page with 37 friends. I thought for sure some poor marketing intern was getting fired for that.

Turns out I was just looking at the wrong page. Not entirely my fault. Disregarding the Rocky Votolato from Greenwood, Ind., a singer-songwriter unfortunate enough to have the same name as an considerably more popular singer/songwriter (what are the chances?), there are two fake Votolato MySpace pages. The real Votolato, a disarming character with an easy, unhurried sense of humor (and 10,360 MySpace fans) is confused by this strange new eHero Worship.

"I don't know who they are." he says, "but I guess I don't mind, as long as they aren't doing anything hurtful." Nothing hurtful except sucking up some of the Rocky converts that flooded MySpace after his "White Daisy Passing" got a play on The OC two weeks ago.

For many self-serious indie kids, inclusion in a show like The OC (see also: Grey's Anatomy, Six Feet Under, et al.) often marks a band's death knell -- the end of cultural and artistic relevance. It shouldn't, for several reasons. One, the dichotomy that you can either be good or popular is a false one, the remnant of a classic gutter punk oversimplification. Two, the track played alongside Sun Kill Moon's cover of Modest Mouse's "Neverending Math Equation" and a three-year-old Sufjan Stevens track. These acts won't ever be mainstream darlings for a variety of reasons, and neither will Rocky.

His songs are too honest. They deal too intimately and too self-reflectively with those things that popular acts treat reactively and with broad strokes. There's uncertainty in his music, but not angst. There's anger, but not rage. There's a studious chronicling of failures but no trace of self-loathing. None of these feats are easy, exploring the self without copping with an easy emotion. Rage and angst and self-loathing are like pressure valves. People reflexively understand them as extremes of emotion, and that lets them off the hook.

No, what Votolato does is more challenging on the listener. He never reaches for that pressure valve; he never goes for the easy or cheap emotion. He's examined himself, his characters and his musical sensibilities, and now he wants to show them to you unabridged and undiluted. It's a lot like what his brother Cody's band Blood Brothers does at the sonic level, tearing apart the simple and accepted sonic tropes and reconstructing them in their own context. It's an uncomfortable thing, forcing the listener to relearn the things we know. But, while Blood Brothers are smash-mouthedly iconoclastic, consciously picking fights with established musical sensibilities, Rocky is just being himself in a way that few artists have the courage to be. He's unafraid to be misunderstood, and that scares people more than Blood Brothers ever will.

Rocky Votolato is, in short, an artist in the most simple, straightforward way. He uses his medium to explore the emotion of being, to tell the story of existence. It's sincere and frank, but not salacious. One more reason he'll never be Rob Thomas, which is a very good thing.

Funny thing is though, after three solo records and three more with his old band Waxwing (a collaboration with brother Cody), Votolato says that now people are starting to get him.

"With this record, everybody's kind of getting it. Maybe it's just a familiarity with the songs and the style, but it just seems like people are understanding what I'm saying," he says. A blessing and a curse, to be sure.

Rocky Votolato plays at the Shop on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 7 pm. Tickets $7 at the door. Call 534-1647

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