Josh Rouse has been traveling, so to speak, for the past few years. At the beginning of the decade, we found him dressed in his Nebraska best. Since then, he’s been traveling in a southeasterly direction, though, somehow, a time machine sucked him into 1972, where he found his muse in Carole King and Jackson Browne. And, at times, even a little Marvin Gaye. Today, however, we find the road-tripping singer-songwriter firmly grounded in the present in the home of country music and with his name imprinted on the best album of his career.
To some, relocation to Nashville might imply a change in style toward big hats and honky-tonk hoedowns. Josh Rouse, however, hasn’t been as affected by the Grand Ole Opry as one might expect. Though there is a fair amount of pedal steel on the album, you could hardly call it country. This is as much a Nashville album as any of Lambchop’s (a band that Rouse has collaborated with). While the country roots may be showing, the tips have been bleached with pure pop. It’s even a bit of a stretch to call this an alt-country album, though one would be forgiven for doing so. These are beautiful, catchy pop songs that are simple and elegant, eschewing the over-the-top drama in the majority of Americans’ chosen format. Rouse can put together a heavenly song, but it’s his casual delivery and laid-back tone that make them what they are.
Things start off sweetly and steadily with “It’s the Nighttime,” a pedal steel heavy track with some piano cascades that recall Joe Jackson’s “Breaking Us in Two.” Ultimately it’s Rouse’s nice guy charm that makes this song a winner. As if courting a young lady, the Midwestern songwriter croons, “Would it be alright/if I took you for a ride/took you out on the town/maybe someplace nice.” The first single, “Winter in the Hamptons,” is sublimely beautiful, sounding like an Americanized Smiths with nostalgic and charming lyrics of, uh, spending Winter in the Hamptons, of course. “Carolina” is yet another gem, lovely and simple, as Rouse pronounces the title characters name “Care-oh-LEE-na,” contrary to the pronunciation of the twin Southern states’ names.
“Middle School Frown” is a jazzy ballad that, oddly, sounds like Ryan Adams circa Love is Hell more than an actual jazz guitarist, but nonetheless sounds great. The latter half of the album slows to a more relaxed and late-night pace, though the songs are no less beautiful. They do, however, take a little more patience than the more immediate standouts of the first side. But the huge build-up in “Sad Eyes” pays off, as does the more blues and gospel influenced “Why Won’t You Tell Me What.” Truly amazing stuff, indeed.
All in all, there isn’t a bum track in the bunch, though there are few surprises, just as the more soulful tracks on 1972 were. This is simple, beautiful pop music made by a classic American songwriter. And a vastly underrated one at that. Now that Grant Lee Phillips has moved on since being the house musician for the Gilmore Girls, it might be time for another American talent to get his chance in the prime-time limelight. A call to the execs at the WB might be in order.
Ryan Adams – Love is Hell p.1 and 2
Whiskeytown – Pneumonia
Freedy Johnston – This Perfect World
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.