Roto – The Low Power Hour

The Low Power Hour

Listening to Roto, I couldn’t help but imagine that I was listening to something on NPR when I was reviewing this disc. Everything about The Low Power Hour is very deliberate – vocal inflections and instrumental mix are keys to the effectiveness of Roto’s sound.

However, the evolution of Roto’s sound is almost as interesting as the actual product. The original concept of Roto involved the band, David Arbury and Carleton Ingram, playing live shows with a different drummer for every show. The idea was to achieve various impressions of each of the bands songs, based on the style of that night’s particular drummer. After a year-and-a-half, Arbury and Ingram decided that it was time to actually record, so they piled four of the drummers (including John Davis and Harris Klahr from Q and Not U and Justin Moyer from El Guapo/Edie Sedgwick) into the studio with them and went to work.

The results exist as The Low Power Hour, and the title is as fitting as any other could have been. The entire disc is very low-key – I mean, we’re talking “rivals-the-volume-level-of-the-
Cowboy-Junkies-Sweet-Jane-cover” here. The songs here are elaborately simple, a concept that really only fits after having heard the disc. Nothing exciting happens early on in the 52-minute Low Power Hour – “Trickster” sounds like a sparse LandSpeedRecord!, while “Glass” and “Low Power FM” sound like NoMeansNo on Ritalyn. “Wrecking Ball” actually features Charley Jamison from LSR! working his computer effect magic, which is cool simply for the fact that it completely changes the mood of the record to this point. Unfortunately, the too-short-to-mean-anything bass solo “Dancing Crab” fails to build on the potential of the previous track.

Things get cool from here, though. “The Show” features some classic lyrics about various addictions to candy, music, and caffeine over a catchy bassline. “Brain Chip” sounds like a mellow Violent Femmes – the guitar/bass interaction creates a very brooding atmosphere that gets amplified by the track’s eerily calm dual lead vocals. “Town to Town” accentuates that mood, adding to a silent intensity that has manifested itself over the course of the disc. The bassline of “The Ground” is the standout moment of the disc, accentuated by the minimal guitar and the soaring vocals – this, my friends, is the real ‘quiet riot.’ “Pipeline” really seems like a placeholder more than anything, although “Stasis” picks up where “The Ground” left off, building a suspenseful repoire between the moribund bass and guitar sounds. A clarinet effortlessly floats into the track, poignancy to the effect of lines such as “There’s too much left to change – Too much left to chance.”

Again, though, the instrumental “Meditation” somehow kills the previously established mood. I don’t necessarily know that there is any concrete reason for it, but this track really seemed to kill the ambience created by some of the earlier tracks. The next track, “Time Trial,” begins with an elegant round of lifting vocals that is repeated throughout the song. I’m thinking NoMeansNo crossed with They Might Be Giants here – the vocal sound breeds intensity, but the track is insanely simple instrumentally, and the effect is powerful. The smooth lyrical flow of “No Alimony” is supported well by the track’s guitarline, and the tinny space-guitar effect of the disc’s second take of “The Show” makes this one a bit cooler than the first. “Glider” is another standout on the disk, starting slow and quiet before abruptly picking up in support of the vocals. The chorus is minimal, but seems stronger than it is thanks to the effective dual vocals. “PCH-1” ends the disc on a brief note as the only instrumental that actually seems to fit the mood created beforehand.

Reviewing this disc was one of the strangest listening experiences that I’ve ever been through. The Low Power Hour has some really remarkable material on it; problem is, there is definitely some stuff here that I could do without. What’s truly strange about this all is that, taken as a whole, the disc really holds a common sound. I’m pretty weirded-out by the fact that my opinions on the tracks can vary so much, even though they all carry the same basic sound and structure. Still, Roto hasn’t actually put anything unlistenable on this disc, and both versions of “The Show” along with “The Ground,” “Stasis” and “Glider” are certainly good enough to nullify the effects of any lulls that are present. Recommended to fans of quiet and lo-fi stuff.