Thursday, February 18, 2021

Viva Voce: A delicate balance that got a little heavy

Viva Voce was a husband-wife duo from Muscle Shoals, AL, who relocated to Portland, OR, to get a foothold in the active indie scene there. They made a pretty good name for themselves, releasing several full-length albums and becoming stars on the festival circuit in the mid- to late 2000s. I first heard them in the early 2010s on a podcast hosted by a guy who worked for the NPR affiliate in Portland. (I can't remember the guy's name, and now I can't find any trace of that podcast, which ran for a few years.)

Kevin and Anita Robinson seemed to be on a pretty good career track, self-releasing three albums before hooking up with Seattle indie Barsuk Records for a couple releases and getting a deal with major label Vanguard Records for what turned out to be their final album. Sadly, Viva Voce vanished soon after that, when their marriage disintegrated. Anita moved back home to Alabama, hasn't been heard from since. Kevin apparently has made a few attempts to rebuild his career with no real success.

While they were around, they left a pretty good body of work. Anita was the rock star. She played an aggressive, loud, sometimes abrasive lead guitar that was a pleasantly stark contrast to her sweet, sing-songy vocals. Kevin did just about everything else. He played drums, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, whatever else was called for, sang harmonies as well as the occasional lead vocal, and produced it all in his home studio.

As a duo, the Robinsons did a lot of live radio and record-store appearances, common for bands in the Pacific Northwest. Once their career got some legs and they started touring exhaustively, Viva Voce became a four-piece band with the addition of rhythm guitarist Corrina Repp and drummer Evan Railton and Kevin moving to bass guitar full-time. 

I like to describe Viva Voce's music as a blend of Kevin's trippy atmospherics and Anita's heavy guitar rock. They were at their best when Kevin would lay down a relaxed instrumental groove that Anita would ride with her smooth vocals and punctuate with her explosive guitar bursts. They hit perfection with that a few times on their best albums. Unfortunately, it would go awry now and then in the early days when Kevin would get overzealous with his trip-hoppy ideas. And then they seemed to lose their equilibrium when they morphed into the Anita-fronted rock band.

Kevin proved to be a talented studio wizard, and Anita had some good rock-guitar chops. When they balanced those strengths, Viva Voce made some pretty good music together, definitely worth checking out. This band grew on me pretty quickly once I started investigating about a decade ago. It didn't take me long to complete my collection with all six studio albums as well as a posthumous collection of outtakes. The good stuff is quite addicting and far overshadows the awkward moments.

Let me help you get started. A ranking of the six studio albums, starting with my least favorite:

No. 6. Hooray For Now (1998):
It was a start. Kevin and Anita recorded and self-released this when they were still in Muscle Shoals, before they moved to Portland. Anita's feeling her way, and Kevin's trying way too hard to show off his studio skills. Heavy on the guitar pop, the songs are good enough to be pleasantly listenable despite the heavy gadgetry. I haven't been able to find this on any streaming service. Two of the tracks appear on the 2012 collection, Artifaktz: 1997-2001, which is readily available.

No. 5: Rose City (2009):
The fifth album, the only one recorded as a four-piece. It's recognizably Viva Voce. But it's way too heavy on the guitar rock to satisfy a craving for a Viva Voce listen. I rate it higher than the debut because the material is better and David isn't so heavy-handed with the studio effects. It's a good, competent try, but there isn't much here to distinguish from your standard indie-rock record of the era.

No. 4: Lovers, Lead the Way! (2003):
The second Viva Voce album, but the first where these two had a sense of what they were. The Robinsons had moved to Portland on a discovery mission around the turn of the millenium. And they obviously found their voice with the support of the large indie community there. This album shows off some of the best of early Viva Voce. But this excellent 15-track, 65-minute album probably would have been great with some judicious editing. About a third of it is dispensible. Lovers, Lead the Way! later was packaged with The Heat Can Melt Your Brain as a double album for digital download -- my first dive into Viva Voce. I believe it still is sold that way. I know the double album turns up on streaming services, duplicating each of the individual ones. 

No. 3: Get Yr Blood Sucked Out (2006): Viva Voce album No. 4. This is a move toward the harder rock sound, and it works. David still provides the addictively trippy grooves, but he adds some significant heft to the mix. Anita responds with some monster guitar freakouts. Kevin carries a bit more of the lead vocals than usual, but that's only a minor complaint. You have to get through a couple of rough spots here, but overall it's an excellent album. My estimation of this one improved significantly as I began writing this. I was going to place it No. 4, but I elevated it a spot on my run through the Viva Voce catalog yesterday and today.

No. 2: The Future Will Destroy You (2011):
Viva Voce's major-label debut, but their final album before David and Anita split. They went back to being a duo to record this one. They maintained the harder rock sound from the previous two albums but toned it down quite a bit. It's closer to that original trip-hoppy Viva Voce signature sound than any of the later albums got. The material is consistenly strong throughout. So when I'm in the mood for the harder side of Viva Voce, this is the album I turn to.

No. 1: The Heat Can Melt Your Brain (2004):
The third Viva Voce album. The packaging with Lovers, Lead The Way! makes perfect sense, as this is essentially a repeat of the earlier one only half as long with none of the fat. It's the classic Viva Voce sound presented with consistently excellent material. Put this one in your earbuds when you're headed out for a pleasant walk around the neighborhood. It'll put a bounce in your step and will stick in your brain for days. An excellent place to start your Viva Voce adventure.

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