It seems that “location, location, location” isn’t just the credo of slightly dubious realtors – it appears that the place where a musician sets up their microphone and tape recorder can have a massive effect on their art. Would “Exile on Main Street” sound less debauched if it had been recorded somewhere with air conditioning rather than the basement of Keith Richards’ Nellcôte mansion on the Côte d’Azur in France? Who knows? Josh Rouse might have an opinion on this, as for the last two years, he’s been tucked away in Spain, surrounded by his family and a bunch of local musicians. Unsurprisingly, Going Places sounds easy and relaxed and emphasizes gentle, subtle grooves. After all, it’s hot in Spain; you don’t want to get all tuckered out, playing too fast now, do you?
Rouse’s last album (if we neatly sidestep his 2019 Christmas record, The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse) was an interesting diversion for him. Love in the Modern Age saw him dabbling with synths and electronica in a very appealing manner. Maybe he left all the high-tech stuff (and his Cure CDs) back in the states as Going Places is made on classic lines and sounds a lot like a bunch of musicians enjoying playing breezy, ultra-melodic material, possibly whilst seated.
“It is always Friday night / If you’re living in LA,” sings Rouse in “She’s in LA”. The constant noise and over-stimulation of a big city are what he’s railing against on this album. The track glides along beautifully on a bed of congas and slide guitar, sounding (whisper it) a lot like Jimmy Buffett. And that’s not a terrible thing. In fact, a sea breeze and a Margarita should come shrink-wrapped to every copy of Going Places to enhance the listening experience.
Somehow, by some deft sleight of hand, Rouse manages to keep these songs just to the left side of the middle of the road. Nothing here ever tips into easy listening slush, even though mid-paced tempos and his limpid voice define every song here. Some songs like “City Dog” and “The Lonely Postman” have a sense of urgency, but when he sings “I’ve never been a good boy / I’ve never stuck to rules” on “Stick Around”, it’s hard to believe him. After all, how could an unruly child make such calm and measured music? The horn arrangement on that track is understated and lovely.
If you’ve ever wondered what Wilco would sound like if Jeff Tweedy wasn’t quite so wired all the time, then “Henry Miller’s Flat” might help you. Driven by some charming tuned percussion, the tune uncurls frictionlessly for a little over three minutes, then just stops. That stop is the only thing close to jarring on Going Places.
It’s a fundamental misconception that simple songs are simple to write. Rouse is a craftsman who adds only what is necessary to an arrangement, meaning that there is nothing extraneous or out of place. On “Indian Summer”, he strips everything back to just a tremolo-ed electric guitar, a breathy harmonica part, and his trademark, understated vocal. It’s gorgeous. “I can’t wait to quit my job / I can’t wait to be a slob,” he sings – a line that J Mascis would have been proud to have written.
Finding himself sequestered in Spain, with a burning desire to play live, but a pandemic preventing him from doing so, he could have gone stir crazy. All that angst could have spilled over into something edgy and angsty, which might have been fun, but that would have involved a lot of sudden movements in the Mediterranean heat. Instead, he loosened his tie, popped his sandals on, and made his 14th album, Going Places. He’s a 50-something musician with a canon of material that surely must be pushing him towards a Loudon Wainwright III level of acclaim. But I’m not sure that’s a motivation for him. He’s found his groove, and it’s warm and comforting and beautifully honed. We need to raise a glass to Mr. Rouse – and while we’re at it, let’s raise one for Jimmy Buffett, too.