[10 March 2010]
El Turista is an appropriate title for a Josh Rouse album, given the Nebraska-born singer’s penchant for moving around from one place to another. Yet Rouse’s music emphasizes the pleasures of settling as much as travel. Rouse himself has called a number of places home over the years, both in the USA and in Spain, where he relocated in 2005. The titles of his albums tell a large part of this dialectic between movement and stasis: Dressed Up Like Nebraska (1998), Home (2000), Nashville (2005), Country Mouse City House (2007). Home is a time as much as a place for Rouse, as his lovely, lovingly crafted album 1972 proved in 2003. Even more than an era, it is a season that Rouse’s sound constantly evokes, the sound of summer. This is a man who can make a song about the forecast of rainy weather (“Winter in the Hamptons”, from Nashville) glow with a warm fuzziness that only remembered summers have.
True to form, El Turista takes as its themes home, the exotic, and the past, folding the three into each other for a 10-track set of hazy summer pop. As the title suggests, a number of the tracks bear Spanish titles or are sung in Spanish. Rouse has done this before, with Subtitulo (2006) and She’s Spanish, I’m American (2007), the latter recorded with his then-girlfriend (now wife) Paz Suay. On the new album, there is the additional element of ranging and arranging across the musico-geographical spectrum. “I Will Live On Islands” was apparently inspired by The Roots of Rumba Rock, an anthology of Congolese music. Cuban music is another influence, reflected in the inclusion of two covers of songs associated with Cuban singer-pianist Bola de Nieve, “Drume Mobila” (here “Duerme”) and “Messié Julián” (“Mesie Julian”). Throughout there is the lost summer haze of classic bossa nova and Latin-inspired easy listening music.
As in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, the past, for Rouse, is another country. On a very literal level, this is true. Rouse returned to the US to record the album in Nashville with his erstwhile producer Brad Jones. On a more poetic level, the foreignness of the past is manifest in the use of African and Latin American musical references. Unlike 1972, this is a past the singer didn’t live. There is a shift in the register of authenticity in these tracks, from actual lived experience to sincerity of expression. This is true also of Rouse’s unexpected and unexpectedly moving version of the old folk standard “Cotton Eye Joe”, which evokes Nina Simone’s slow and sensual take of the song on her 1959 album At Town Hall.
Remembering, of course, takes place in the present, and there is plenty of the present here too. “Valencia” is a joyful paean to the town that Rouse now calls home. “Sweet Elaine” is a love song happy to occupy the here and now. “I Will Live On Islands”, meanwhile, narrates the tale of a man convicted of a crime, imagining a future beyond prison walls. Its message is backed up by a sprightly arrangement which does a decent job of channeling the Congolese proto-rumba that inspired it.
The album opens with the instrumental “Bienvenido”, which operates as a bridge between present and past, welcoming us to the familiar, yet always other, world of the popular past via its driving acoustic bass line and “Latin” keyboard flourishes. In case we didn’t get the message, the intro leads straight into “Duerme”, replete with light bossa guitar strumming and classic Cuban piano chords. The addition of Rouse’s non-native Spanish confirms the piece as un-pin-downable to any “authentic” location, occupying instead the non-space of international music. The closest referent would probably be those artists of the 1960s and 1970s who veered between easy listening, exotica, and contemporary pop, operating in a time and space before “world music”, when “international” was the favored term and holiday records a regular occurence.
Internationalism is hymned on “Mesie Julian”, Rouse sensibly omitting Bola de Nieve’s opening line (“yo soy negro social”) and concentrating on the expression of cosmopolitan artistry instead. There is something to be said for artistic consistency in Rouse’s work. What might rankle with another artist—the threat of cheesiness, the insistence on the smoothness of the past—here becomes a small part of a larger picture. Rouse has fashioned the relationships between time and space into an aesthetic that bounds his work, reworking a set of artistic tools over a number of interrelated musical projects. Rather than repeating himself, he adds subtle new colors to his palette.
“The livin’ is easy / and I’m feelin’ no pain,” Rouse sings on “Cotton Eye Joe”, before bringing the song to a stately close. It’s interesting to compare this to the way Nina Simone closed her 1959 version, when she wrapped the closing word “ago” in a cloak of absolute aching melancholy. It’s a reminder of the ways in which we visit the past with specific questions, agendas, and strategies. Most of the songs on El Turista look to home and away as places and times of reassurance and comfort. Despite the late night weariness of album closer “Don’t Act Tough”, Rouse’s music ventures far from the blue glow of melancholy, aiming for glorious golden moments instead.