Josh Rouse – Leaving middle America behind
On my way to interview Josh Rouse, with his songs murmuring in my iPod, I wondered how best to ask the question that was really bothering me: Does this still matter?
Not “this” as in Josh Rouse, per se, or Nashville, his well-crafted new album, but “this” as in agreeably melancholy middle American sensitive singer-songwriter music. As in, folk-rock or indie-rock or alt-country or any of the other permutations of nice, smart, tuneful songs by nice, smart, tuneful writers, played on guitars and pianos and basses and drums, lovingly produced with nods to Brian Wilson or Owen Bradley or George Martin or Jerry Wexler or Berry Gordy or whatever the favored reference point happens to be.
I like a lot of this music, and I love some of it. But I love other music too, and increasingly it’s that other music — hip-hop and electronic music, but also the expanding world of digital reconfigurations (mash-ups and mixtapes and DJ sets), with its appetite for new sounds and its capacity for weaving together cultures and languages and past and present — that rings bells. My favorite album of 2004 wasn’t really an album at all; it was a mix by a British/Sri Lankan rapper and an American DJ that incorporated everything from crunk to the Bangles to Brazilian ghetto funk. The songs are great, but it’s more than that: The music, the way it hopscotches genres, continents and decades, feels immediate, engaged and global. It makes even my favorite middle American music seem…too middle American. Limited. Parochial. And it makes me wonder if the present moment really lends itself to affable affluent Americans contemplating their latest heartbreak over one more set of tasteful arrangements and four-chord melodies.
It seemed like a reasonable question. But it makes its own set of assumptions about the music, and the people who make it and listen to it, and those assumptions don’t necessarily reflect reality either. Take Josh Rouse, for instance.
The first place the easy pigeonholing of Rouse falters is in the simple matter of geography. Middle American he may be, but Rouse is, for the moment living far, far away. Last fall, he moved to Altea, a small town in the east of Spain. He enrolled in Spanish classes five days a week, and found a Spanish girlfriend.
“I had toured there last year and I really liked it a lot,” he says, in an interview during a short stopover in New York after a holiday visit with his parents in the Midwest. He’s wearing a gray sweater and matching corduroys, and his cropped, chopped hair makes him look considerably younger than the 33 he will turn this year. “I had a couple friends that were buying houses there, and the idea of it sounded really neat,” he continues. Especially for a guy emerging from a divorce and looking to put some miles between himself and a city where he felt a little too familiar. He grimaces at the headline someone put on his new set of publicity materials — “Rouse has run away from home” — but doesn’t deny that he’s made a deliberate break with his recent past.
Which makes it either ironic or fitting, and maybe both, that his new album dwells in and on that past, starting with its title. Rouse didn’t set out make a record about the place he lived for most of the last decade. During the recording sessions, he hadn’t even decided what to call it. But returning from the west coast as he was finishing the disc, he heard the pilot say “We’re landing in Nashville” and realized he wanted to pay some kind of tribute to the city.
“It was kind of where I was at, with living there for ten years and leaving,” he says. “It was for all the people who live there and play music that’s kind of outside Music Row or outside the commercial country thing — kind of on the inside. The record is somewhat subtle and inside anyway, so I thought it was a nice name. And I always liked the name Nashville, I think it’s an interesting name. I like the Robert Altman film. And it’s kind of quirky, Nashville is a quirky place. So this represents a side of music you’re not used to hearing.”
It’s true that Rouse’s Nashville, released February 22 on Rykodisc, avoids most of the obvious associations with the name. But the city has for years nurtured a pop-rock underground, with guitars that jangle more than they twang and influences that range far into folk and psychedelia. Rouse, who like most singer-songwriters of recent vintage has sometimes been compared to Nick Drake, was a natural fit for the scene. At the same time, the enlistment of Music Row veteran Al Perkins on pedal steel gives Nashville a sound distinct from the strings-drenched arrangements and classic AM radio vibe of Rouse’s 2003 album 1972. The songs don’t come from country music, but they do sound like they live down the block and sometimes keep the windows open.
“The way I approached the record was we just did different sessions,” Rouse says. “It was very song-y, almost folky in approach. I didn’t really set out to go, ‘OK, I’m going to go make another record.’ We just recorded these songs here and there, and then it all kind of fell together.” The “we” included his friend and producer Brad Jones, who also produced 1972, and longtime bandmates Curt Perkins, James Haggerty and Marc Pisapia, along with Daniel Tashian on guitars.
Rouse has a tendency to see things — people and places — in the rearview mirror. His first album, 1998’s Dressed Up Like Nebraska, recalled his Midwestern childhood and adolescence. In 2002, Under Cold Blue Stars drew on observations of relationships, both his own and others’, for a song cycle about domestic life. And 1972 was a conscious effort to recreate the soulful, groove-laden pop of the year Rouse was born.
Nashville is likewise retrospective, but in a less focused and maybe more personal way. “It’s a more subtle record,” he says. “But I think it’s maybe something that people will be able to enjoy a little bit longer, because there’s a different depth to the songs that’s not quite so immediate.”
It started as sort of a grab bag, with some songs reaching back four or five years. But it ended as a summing-up. The songs simmer with hints of Rouse’s recent divorce, and the pedal steel moans evoke Music City at the same time they say goodbye to it. The songs are restless and contradictory, full of mixed messages. Sometimes Rouse is the sly guy on the make — in “It’s The Nighttime”, he purrs to some object of desire, “We can go to your room/I can try on your clothes.” Other times, he’s lonely, or else uncomfortably accompanied.