Josh Rouse cements his reputation as a superb artist in the vein of Aimee Mann or Jackson Browne, but with more musical variety.
It would be disingenuous to discuss Josh Rouse's new recording, Nashville, without talking about his 2003 release, 1972. Although 1972 was Rouse's fourth full-length, it had the fire and depth that somehow makes Nashville the equivalent of a sophomore release. 1972, while holding nothing new in its hands, is one of those tremendously good records. Publications running across the musical spectrum praised its worth. It brought together somewhat disparate people. From the alt-country obsessed economics professor to the tattooed punk rock guy to the shy/pretentious anti-folk young woman, I have rarely had so many people ask me if I had heard a particular record, and then insist on spending half an hour talking about it. At least not since Radiohead's Kid A, and those people were pretty much split between loving and hating it. 1972 is a loved record, and it put Josh Rouse on the map in a way that none of his other critically-acclaimed records ever did.
The good news is that Nashville is another solid record. Rouse and his backing band -- Marc Pisapia (drums, keyboards), James Haggerty (bass), Curt Perkins (keys), Daniel Tashian (guitar), Brad Jones (upright bass) -- have crafted a spellbindingly warm-sounding record. There's not a note that sounds off, out-of-place or like it is too much on this record. The musicians deserve a great deal of credit. They have done what is not necessarily easy to find on a lot of recordings: professionalism without sounding cold. They easily slip in and out of genres without sounding clichéd. There's still enough blue-eyed soul to keep 1972 fans happy, but there's also a return to country leanings, and a great, taunting New Orleans-ish number, "Why Won't You Tell Me What". Al Perkins provides pedal steel on several tracks to haunting effect. The most gorgeous instrumentation on Nashville, though, is the string arrangements by Chris Carmichael on "Streetlights" and "Sad Eyes". Preceding "Streetlights" is "Winter in the Hamptons", a song that speaks of boredom and killing time ("Friday night / We're so uptight / We get stoned / Sit in the Hamptons / It is too cold / We have stayed too long"). The song segues into opening strings on the hopeful "Streetlights" and it sounds like coming down from intoxication, when things start to look odd, yet beautiful, and it's really good to feel sober again. The strings continue through the song, culminating in a flying duet with Josh Rouse's voice at the three-minute mark. It's a moment to give one chills.
Elsewhere, "Middle School Frown" is one of the most sincerely affecting songs about an embarrassing time period that you are liable to ever hear. Lines such as "Yeah there goes that girl with the cheap guitar / She's a punk rock star / She's a dying art" are sung with a confident earnestness that can make even a nostalgia cynic wistful for days gone by. "Saturday" makes the idea of staying home seem like a rare prize. "My Love Has Gone" aches in the same vein as a young Jackson Browne covering middle-aged Bruce Springsteen. A couple of tracks falter, but only in a minor way. "Carolina" is a bit slight, despite the swelling pedal steel, and the closing track, "Life" suffers in the same way, but without the mournful instrument to give it heft.
"You play your stereo loud / You got your headphones on / I see you dancing around / To your favorite song". The opening lyrics of Nashville, from the song "It's the Nighttime" set the tone for the record. Chances are, you know what it sounds like already, simply based on those lines. Josh Rouse has long been a talented musician. With his latest, he cements a solid reputation. Joining the ranks of stellar singer-songwriters such as Aimee Mann and the aforementioned Jackson Browne, he now cuts records that will find you no matter what you listen to. Nashville may not have the immediate appeal of 1972, but it is just as strong and, with time, may even be remembered more.