Lou Rogai – Empty Throne EP

Lou Rogai
Empty Throne EP

Although it might be unfashionable to admit, now that he has moved on to major label backing and shed most of his indie cred cool, I still really dig Elliott Smith. And while his last few albums have proven that the man knows his way around an ornate melody, I sort of miss the singularly morose intensity of his early acoustic singer/songwriter albums. Empty Throne, the debut EP from Lou Rogai, provides a great reminder of how powerful those albums were. With a similar set-up of mostly acoustic guitar, hushed vocals, and occasionally caustic lyricism, Rogai makes stark, sensitive singer/songwriter songs that need no extra ornamentation to communicate their undiluted vision.
Opening with the intricate finger picking and cooing organ of “Victim & the Crime,” the beautifully mournful melody and mounting intensity showcase a songwriting sensibility built on the sturdy foundation of the greats. Similarly, the nice double-tracked vocals and simple setting for the title track evoke more comparisons to Smith and his like-minded ilk. Also, like Smith (or Mark Eitzel for that matter), Rogai’s songwriting is personal, confessional, and somewhat accusatory. He constructs images out of the minutia of a moment, cataloguing his grievances while exorcising his existential angst. In fact, with the stops and starts and mounting emotion of “Tributaries,” Rogai could almost be lumped in with the fringe of the emo scene.
Unfortunately, one never really gets any real indications that Rogai will be able to sustain his momentum over the course of a full-length album, as this EP is rounded out with two undeniably pleasant but instrumental tracks. Comprised mostly of interweaving acoustic and electric guitars, these tracks make for a nice coda to the emotional heaviness of the other songs in the set, but they almost seem to provide evidence as to just how difficult writing a whole album (or even a whole EP) of viable songs truly is. Ultimately, it’s of little consequence, as Rogai has already displayed enough talent to earn your respect by this point, and instrumental tracks do add a nice sense of variation to songs like the very Nick Drake-ish “Counted Miles,” even in a set just over 20 minutes long.
Of course, most songwriters like Rogai have early outings similar to this one, as lack of funds for recording studios, musical equipment, and bandmates necessitates the stripped-down solo approach for the first few albums. If I were a betting man, I’d lay money on his continuing to follow this formula for a few albums, then settling into a more complex and sonically varied songwriting aesthetic, as he seems to have the talent to warrant a bigger recording budget at some point. His songwriting voice still may be in the embryonic stage, which is still entirely expected, but Rogai’s start is highly reminiscent of that of other leading lights in the indie singer/songwriter canon, and he should carve out a niche more uniquely his own in the near future. Plus, it’s just nice to hear somebody return to the basics of songwriting every once in awhile. Now if we could just talk Elliott Smith into unplugging for a few albums…