“In a world where Jewel is considered a poet, where does a talented singer/songwriter like Josh Rouse fit in?” So wrote Popmatters’ David Sakowski in his review of Rouse’s 2000 sophomore album Home. Eight years later, the public has gotten wise to Jewel, relegating her to a more fitting role as washed-up pop star/reality TV judge. But Rouse is basically in the same position. Why he hasn’t slotted in alongside the current wave of sensitive folk-pop singer-songwriters he helped inspire, and become huge in the process, is a mystery. He writes hook-filled, emotional, accessible songs; his records are produced with a warm, clean, radio-friendly sound; and he’s handsome, too. Yet to many he’s just a guy who gets mistaken for the other sensitive singer-songwriter Joshes, Ritter and Radin. As impressive as its roster and reissue series have been, Rykodisc has never broken an act nationally. Perhaps this two-disc retrospective, hand-picked by Rouse himself, will help change that.
Confusingly issued by fellow Warner Brothers holding Rhino, The Best of the Rykodisc Years covers the five studio albums and two EPs Rouse released between 1998 and 2005. One disc is the true “best of”, containing 19 highlights. Mindful of his dedicated fan following, Rouse has on the second disc included the excellent, self-released 2001 EP Bedroom Classics Vol. 1 in its entirety, as well as some demos and outtakes. It’s enough to get a pretty clear picture of what Rouse is about, and to hear how he progressed from a solid singer-songwriter in the traditional mold to a multi-faceted interpreter of many styles. Along the way, Rouse never lost his focus or identity, never dabbled in genre experiments as a matter of trend-chasing, never really courted the “Braff Rock” tag that so easily could’ve been his. Though he left his native Nebraska for Nashville, he never lost his humble, Midwestern outsider’s perspective. That’s all to say what you’re getting here is some of the best, most cozy pop music of the last decade.
It’s all held together by the top-notch musicianship and Rouse’s boyish, sandy voice. Throughout his career, Rouse has surrounded himself with excellent sidemen. This is crucial because with Rouse, unlike with many singer-songwriters, the music is just as important as the lyrics.
The selections from 1998 debut Dressed Up Like Nebraska and Home evidence someone who right out of the gate was sure what he wanted to accomplish. These songs are well-crafted, well-performed, well-produced examples of rootsy folk-pop, tinged with what was then just becoming alt. country. Rouse comes across as fresh-faced and earnest, but charmingly so. And, if shimmering rocker “Late Night Conversation” and ponderous, mid-tempo “Laughter” could’ve been Toad the Wet Sprocket, that’s no dig; and the rustic, windswept “Dressed Up Like Nebraska” hints at a depth and maturity that would soon be fully realized. It’s Rouse’s first classic. The charismatic, straight-ahead rocker “Directions” is here, too. Tapped by Cameron Crowe for the Vanilla Sky soundtrack, it was arguably the best thing about the movie. That it remains Rouse’s best-known song, though, is a shame.
As enjoyable as these early tracks are, they’re ultimately a run-up to the trifecta of Under Cold Blue Stars (2002), 1972 (2003), and Nashville (2005), all well-represented here. On these albums, Rouse sharpened his already-fine songwriting skills, and began exploring his wide range of influences. You have to remember that Rouse is a child of the ‘80s. Here was a guy who did Cure covers as part of his coffeehouse set. Though the sound is unmistakably his, a certain darkness and edge creeps into much of the music from this period. That doesn’t stop the songs being catchy as ever, but it does lend tracks like “Ugly Stories” and the Smiths-like “Winter in the Hamptons” a distinct atmosphere that helps set Rouse apart from his peers.
Rouse also gets in touch with his love of soul and ‘70s AM pop. “Under Cold Blue Stars” is a dreamy, icy-blue classic, combining Marvin Gaye, vintage synths, and contemporary beats for a track that demands a darkened room and a non-ironic disco ball. “Love Vibration”, on the other hand, cheeses things up joyously, while the stellar “Comeback (Light Therapy)” rides a “Miss You”-type bass groove and Fender Rhodes to pure bliss. The straight-ahead So-cal pop-rock of “It’s the Nighttime” and “Nothing Gives Me Pleasure” are two of the best things here, showing that Rouse never abandoned the sound that helped establish him. And that’s what’s most impressive, how the excursions into new sounds seem more like natural manifestations of Rouse’s talent rather than self-indulgences.
Any distinguished singer-songwriter needs a storyteller’s eye for detail, and Rouse’s is keen. From the undulating motions of a swimmer (“100M Backstroke”) to serotonin deficiency (“Comeback”), to “the lazy drone of a slide trombone” (“A Night In”), his characters express their fixations and desires in ways that are original without being novel. These are outsiders, sure, but they’re first and foremost people living their lives, dealing with the consequences. Put it down to that Midwestern grounding. Even when the songs are sad, there’s a comforting sense of hope or, at the very least, the assurance that eventually things will change.
This melancholy is expressed exquisitely, in nearly heartbreaking terms, on the songs from Bedroom Classics. Even if the demos that follow are for diehards only, these six tracks along with the swirling pop of 1972 outtake “Princess on the Porch” make the entire second disc worthwhile.
Neither of the two albums Rouse has released since leaving Rykodisc is as consistent as The Best of the Rykodisc Years, so what you’re getting here is essentially the best of the best. As with most compilations, there’s room to quibble about track selections. The best remedy for that is just to get the original albums. But there’s no question The Best of the Rykodisc Years is the best place to start. It deserves to be heard throughout sophisticated dorm rooms and living rooms for years to come.