As a teenager, Nebraska-born singer-songwriter-guitarist Josh Rouse led the typical displaced life of a military brat until moving to Nashville in 1996, drawn by the allure of clubs and a thriving music scene. Given Rouse’s upbringing, it’s not surprising that the theme of wanderlust runs through his first four solo albums. Despite his long tenure in the country music mecca, Rouse’s easy-on-the-ear style is far more informed by ’70s AM radio and ’80s UK pop than by anyone who played the Grand Ole Opry.
Dressed Up Like Nebraska paints a compelling picture of life there. Co-produced by David Henry and Rouse, the sparse arrangements are supplemented by the careful use of organ, violin and cello (played by Henry). Equal parts mournful (“The White Trash Period of My Life”) and hopeful (“Dressed Up Like Nebraska”), the songs convey a strong feeling of restlessness. Sung in a plaintive voice, the lyrics tackle loss, alienation and missed opportunities. “Lavina,” paralyzed by grief, “sits alone in a chair / She doesn’t speak or write / Of any despair.” Elsewhere, the album nods to U2 (“Suburban Sweetheart”) and R.E.M. (“Late Night Conversation”). While the album lacks assurance, it’s a strong debut.
Home is altogether more confident, kicking off with a trio of excellent tracks. “Laughter” is a Smiths-influenced tale of paranoid introspection with a fine chorus punctuated by trumpet and flugelhorn blasts. The jazzy rhythm guitar line of “Marvin Gaye” manages to pay tribute to the late Motown legend without resorting to blatant thievery. And “Directions” adds grit to harshly self-critical lyrics (“Stay out all night and get high with your friends / Wonder why you don’t get one thing done”). David Henry again co-produced, largely replacing the acoustic tenderness of Rouse’s debut with a less earnest but more direct electric approach.
Under Cold Blue Stars, produced by Roger Moutenot (Lou Reed, John Zorn), is Rouse’s best effort so far. Largely up-tempo, chock-full of pop hooks and memorable choruses, it’s given life by an excellent rhythm section featuring former Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee. Loosely a concept album, it has lyrics that focus on a couple’s relationship (modeled on Rouse’s family lore). “Nothing Gives Me Pleasure” tells of a self-sacrifice born out of love turning to resentment (“Nothing gives me pleasure like you do / I’ve always been the one to follow you”). Cheerful keyboard harmonies contrast nicely with the Paul Westerberg-styled desperation of Rouse’s vocal on the fading suburban dream of “Miracle.” “Christmas With Jesus” takes a poke at religion (“And getting in / Is easy when you’re / Friends with Jesus”). The standout track is “Women and Men,” a breakup/makeup tale punctuated by a soaring guitar solo and a chorus loaded with self-righteous anger (“But you won’t see me / Cause I won’t be there / To help you sleep / When you get scared”). Under Cold Blue Stars is a mature and well-crafted work from a talented songwriter. Highly recommended.
Rouse’s devotion to ’70s singer-songwriters is apparent throughout 1972. The production by Yo La Tengo cohort Brad Jones (who also contributes bass and organ) is a notch better than Rouse’s previous recordings. Unfortunately, Rouse’s attempt to pay homage to the decade of his birth is derivative to such a degree it compromises the songwriting. In the title track, a catchy melody is sullied by namedropping (Carole King) and wholesale lyrical appropriation (“is it too late baby? / Is it too late?”). “Love Vibration” has silly lyrics and a chorus with backing vocals that resemble the Welcome Back, Kotter theme. Elsewhere, Rouse takes ill-advised stylistic detours into gospel (“Sparrows Over Birmingham”) and faux-Barry White soul (“Under Your Charms”) with lame lyrics (“It’s the end of the night / And I’m feeling sexual”). The album is not totally without merit: “Come Back (Light Therapy)” should provide a few knowing chuckles to anyone who suffers from seasonal affective disorder, and “Rise” tells a compelling tale of alienation from a loved one.
Chester, recorded in 1999, is a five-song collaboration with Lambchop leader Kurt Wagner; Rouse provides vocals, guitar and melodica. While potentially interesting to fans of either artist, this loose, stream-of-consciousness affair is little more than a footnote to Rouse’s career.