REVIEW: Rob Stokes - Live at the Heartbreak Hotel

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Raquel Dalarossa

There’s not much to be found online about Rob Stokes. Aside from a Bandcamp and an Instagram, information about the musician and artist seems hard to come by. But as it turns out, Stokes is a formidable figure in the Washington, DC indie circuit, where he runs Medium Rare, an initiative that sees Stokes recording, producing, and engineering music for other artists, putting out tapes, as well as curating events. Amidst all of that, the Pittsburgh native has found the time to put together his own album.

Live at the Heartbreak Hotel threads together a background in jazz, a budding career in beat-making, and an easygoing approach to experimentation. It feels like the thematic counterpart to Stokes’ EP last year, Love Was Made for These Times, though the lyrics are not the centerpiece in any of his work (especially given the effects often applied to the vocals, turning them more into instruments than deliverers of actual words). What comes to the fore immediately is how rhythmically driven his songs are.

There’s a lot of variation within these ten tracks, but they meld together beautifully. “Blue” is a soulful slow jam heard through a psychedelic lens, while “In the Cut” is a laid-back guitar-pop dream, ambling along like a summer’s day on just a little bit of acid. Songs like “Space” and “Sharks in the Pond” feature acoustic guitar for a folksier effect, but a lively bass and percussive backdrop keep the groove going. Meanwhile, DC-based rapper SIR E.U features on two jazzy R&B tracks, providing fuzzy but nimble verses that provide a propulsion to balance out Stokes’ mellow singing.

All throughout, even when the tempo goes up, the vibes stay pretty relaxed. It’s easy listening that can find itself in a lounge in the ‘60s or at a jazz club today. And really, that’s what sets Live at the Heartbreak Hotel apart: it feels all at once weird, and classic.