Album Review: This Is What Heartache Sounds Like – Rob Bolin

by Joshua Paul Greene

"This Is What Heartache Sounds Like"Releasing an EP is something that has been gaining significant popularity in the last few years.  This trend may be attributed to smaller recording budgets or listeners’ diminishing attention spans.  Generally speaking, I don’t mind the shorter releases, however I do miss the days of buying a new album and listening through it from start to finish.  Anymore it seems the art of taking the listener on a journey throughout the record – weaving a story and playing off common themes and motifs; using music and lyrics to build and release tension – is all but a lost craft.  How can you expect to pull someone in close and pour your heart out to them in the span of 5 songs?  That was my frame of mind until I heard This Is What Heartache Sounds Like by the very talented Rob Bolin.

This EP is shorter than most, even by today’s standards, boasting a track list of only four songs and a total play-length of just over 13 minutes, but what the release lacks in length, Rob makes up for in soul, musical diversity and depth.  Sonically the record sounds great. It manages to provide the listener with all the warmth and comfort of the great folk records of the sixties while still maintaining the clarity and fullness of modern albums.  What’s more, the production on the record (Seth Goodman) provides just as much diversity as the songs themselves and seems to perfectly compliment the songwriting without distracting the listener.  And that’s a very good thing indeed.

Distracting from Rob’s songwriting or storytelling would be a tragic mistake that could, without a doubt, ruin this short but sweet EP.  The record opens with it’s own title track, “This Is What Heartache Sounds Like”, a startlingly honest and surprisingly optimistic tale of sadness and heartbreak.  The music and lyrics together paint a picture of surrender and acceptance, but not of despair:  The cello and steel guitar sing a soft duet of the journey a heart takes after being broken and Rob’s grainy and soothing voice sings the thoughts that have crossed the minds of anyone who’s ever loved and lost.  This track -possibly the most introspective on the record – is a bold way to open, but it is nothing short of the perfect voice with which to invite the listener on this deep and renewing journey.

As the final notes of the song are fading out, the Rhodes and B3 that open the second cut seem to open the blinds and let the light in on the dim room where the last song was sung.  It’s an immediate and obvious shift in tone and intention but, as with everything else on this record, it doesn’t feel at all out of place.  It’s amazing how after only two and a half minutes of listening I found myself completely immersed in Rob’s world.  By 30 seconds in, it was clear to me that this second song, “Emily” was by far my favorite.  An up-beat southern-rocker, “Emily” seems to pay homage to the summer afternoon vibe of old Rolling Stones tracks such as “Tumbling Dice”.  A quick departure from the reflection of “This Is What Heartache Sounds Like”, this track perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to fall in love.  It’s hopeful and happy but just as honest the first song and again, you find yourself right there with Rob, living every word he sings.

The third track, “Take These Chains” is a throwback to the classic western swing of Bob Wills and Merle Haggard, and yet it maintains the same straightforward, humble songwriting style that is Rob’s alone.  This tune finds the listener in a state of calm, idly reminiscing about simpler times most of us know only from books and movies.  Something that amazes me about this entire record, and about Rob as an artist is his ability to make so many genres and so many sounds accessible to his audience.  He carries a rough and heartfelt voice that sounds as though it’s sung it’s way through long days and lonely nights, and yet he sings about life in a way that celebrates sorrow for the strength it gives rather than the spirit it breaks.  He weaves tales of heartbreak and sings of dreams that smell of whiskey and cigarettes but never once is there a sense of hopelessness.

The journey closes with an old Dylan tune by the name of “Moonshiner”.  This track, bares the warmth and simplicity of Bolin in his most raw and vulnerable form singing to you face to face; just guitar and vocals.  Nothing could more effectively bring this saga to a close than this song, sung this way, by this man.  Its tender and yet confident; honest, yet full of longing; bare and exposed, yet filled with more heart than one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  By the time the last chord is strummed so softly it can barely be heard at all, it’s as though Rob is staring in to your eyes, speaking a thousand words with a single expression as a friend with whom you’re about to part ways.  Although you’ve only been together for a very short four songs, it feels like the relationship is decades old and deeper than most friendships ever reach.