BY MICHAEL TOLAND
James Rotondi has done most of his public work behind the guitar for the Cringe, keyboards for Mr. Bungle and Air, and a different type of keyboard as a contributor to various guitar and music mags. Now that he’s stepping out under the name Roto’s Magic Act (yes, he’s also an actual magician), it begs the question: why wait so long?
Given the evidence presented on Into the Unknown, Rotondi is a masterful pop songwriter in the old-fashioned tradition purported by fellow travelers like Jason Falkner, Doug Powell and Toy Matinee. That means not only sophisticated melodies that go beyond three chords and clouds of dust, but paying close attention to the words and how they work with the music. Thus “Hot News” can open and close with the sound of a typewriter being aggressively tapped while fielding lyrics like “They’ll call us crooks and dirty animals/But when we break this exclusive/They’ll all be tightening the nooses.”
Elsewhere Roto digs deeper than sociopolitical commentary, flying the flag for bi-polar mood swings in “Happier Than Ever,” blasting male egomania in “Faraway Lands” and amplifying romantic uncertainly to horrific levels in “Blackout.” Even when he’s just indulging in wordplay for wordplay’s sake, as in “Chronically” and “Strays,” he puts his cleverness to such an infectious melody you’ll sing along anyway. That’s not to mention the casual brilliance of straightforward pop tunes like “Hearts in Flight.”
Indeed, there are so many good songs on Into the Unknown it’s hard to imagine how this talented musician and songwriter doesn’t have a classic catalog awaiting rediscovery.
DOWNLOAD: “Faraway Lands,” “Hearts in Flight,” “Hot News”