One of the best lines in Noah Baumbach’s 1995 cult classic indie film Kicking and Screaming comes when hopeless romantic college grad Grover’s girlfriend tells him she’s leaving him to move to Prague. When he tells her that Prague is overrated, she points out he’s never been there. Grover’s response:
Oh, I’ve been to Prague. Well, I haven’t “been to Prague” been to Prague, but I know that thing, that, “Stop shaving your armpits, read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, date a sculptor, now I know how bad American coffee is” thing…
The line is so brilliant and hilarious because it captures the smugness and naivety with which American young adult artist types have for decades thrown off their native culture in exchange for a hipper, more thoughtful European model.
And when I think about Josh Rouse these days, especially his new album Country Mouse, City House, I can’t help but think of that line. Granted, Rouse’s story is far more complex than a college grad’s semester abroad. A native Nebraskan, he made a name for himself in Nashville as a sensitive, melodically gifted singer-songwriter, releasing a handful of exceptional albums that got him lots of critical acclaim and a cult following, but not even half the commercial success he deserved. Sometime around 2005’s Nashville, Rouse got divorced, kicked an alcohol problem, and moved to Spain.
It’s not like Rouse has sworn off America. He’s said in the past that he lives in Spain because, hey, he likes it there. He started his own label, through which he now releases all his material. He has a Spanish girlfriend, Paz Suay. They collaborate on the artwork for his albums. Earlier in 2007, they released an EP together called She’s Spanish, I’m American. Suay co-wrote three of the nine tracks on Country Mouse, City House.
Not to begrudge a guy his happiness, but it’s all a bit cute. You get the sense that Rouse has indeed “been to Prague”. Of course, none of that would matter were it not reflected in his music. 2006’s Subtitulo, his first album recorded in Spain, offered subtle hints of the native music of his adopted home. It also saw him fully embrace the ‘70s Mellow Gold and classic R&B that he paid heartfelt tribute to on 2003’s 1972. But the emotional edge that had characterized his best work was gone, as was a lot of the melodic staying power of his songwriting. The guy whose best album, 2002’s Under Cold Blue Stars, was a concept record that tracked the trials and triumphs of the American Dream across generations, was now singing about “watermelon, fingerbangin’, Purple Rain and being cool”. Subtitulo wasn’t bad. But for many Rouse fans, it just wasn’t the same.
The first half of Country Mouse is much better. It opens with “Sweetie”, a country-tinged song about a star-crossed couple right out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “We’ll sleep on rooftops / We’ll ride on bicycles / Baby we’ll get married / Don’t you want to, sweetie?”, Rouse sings. More importantly, those words fill a gorgeous, swooning melody that almost leaves you with a “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”-type chill. A couple tracks later is the hard-luck ballad “God, Please Let Me Go Back”, Rouse’s most spiritual track in years, on which he rediscovers his love of Smiths-influenced melancholia. “In my life / I only wanted things to go right” is the kind of simple-yet-sincere sentiment Rouse delivers so well, but once more it’s the wonderful melody that catches your ear.
“Hollywood Bass Player” is one in a line of Rouse outsider character songs, and certainly the most fun: “The French didn’t want me around; they didn’t like my groove / So I packed up my bass guitar / I moved to Hollywood”. It’s also the inevitable soul number, and it’s a good one; drawing heavily on Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From”, souped up on warbly Clavinet and flashy horns. “Italian Dry Ice” also uses horns for soulful effect, but this time the mood is downbeat and jazzy, with swells of Hammond organ filling the air like stale smoke. The atmosphere’s great, but the lyric includes the first sign of the problems that have hampered Rouse’s recent work. If he’s inhabiting a character, it’s a very unflattering one. In a half-growled, half-whispered croak, he chides his ex for “fuckin’ those Italians with expensive clothes”. It’s mean-spirited; worse, it doesn’t come across as the least bit sincere—from any point of view.
Too much of the time, you just don’t know quite where Rouse is coming from. There’s this underlying sense of discontent… contempt, even? “It would be nice to fit in / Because I’m living on the outside a little”, he says on the freewheeling pop/rocker “Nice to Fit In”. Isn’t this the guy who’s so happy with his new, low-key European home?
Musically, the second half of Country Mouse isn’t nearly as strong as the first, James Haggerty’s outstandingly melodic bass playing notwithstanding. “Pilgrim” meanders aimlessly, and when Suay shows up to lend her girlish vocals to the pleasant but nondescript “Domesticated Lovers”, you may be forced to move on before you make it to the water-treading last couple tunes.
Say this for Rouse: He’s one of very few in the modern music business who delivers albums and EPs at an old-school clip, and none of them are bad. Take the best 12 tunes he’s released over the last five years and you’ll have a five-star compilation. As for Country Mouse, City House, it suffers by comparison to Rouse’s best albums, because some of those have been near-classics themselves. This one, while harboring a few great songs, is too close to just being.