Josh Rouse has written across a wide genre of sounds since his first release, Dressed Up Nebraska, which in a bit of self-imitation, was a folk album, dressed up in wash of alternative guitar rock. More so on his second release, Home, which was even more a shift to a late 90’s era feedback/keyboard swirl. Each album has subsequently seen Rouse shifting focus and direction, always to genuine and superb effect. 1972 is a homage to '70s AM radio; Nashville sounds like a celebration of its namesake while still being lofty in ambition and traversing well beyond the country soundscape. Later releases carry the flavor of Rouse’s adopted home, Spain, with classical guitars, and off-center, Latin and rhumba rhythms.
What I love about Rouse’s music is how natural each foray into style and genre comes off. And it’s not as if he in reinventing himself, or the sound he’s going for from album to album. Josh Rouse is unmistakably Josh Rouse when you hear him. A bourbon-smooth vocal style that sometimes veers into crooning, lyrically poetic, often delving into a shared kind of memory of growing up, falling in love, failing into melancholy, but always playful and easily moving from groovy to funky to heartfelt serious. Rouse songs are strong on harmony and have an odd familiarity, even if you’ve not heard them before, as he draws on classic song writer’s tools.
To fit Mr. Rouse into our theme of Middle I picked “Middle School Frown”, from the aforementioned Nashville. A smooth guitar rhythm movement gives way to a lazy jazzy groove. The song builds on the speaker’s reminiscence of how he treated someone back in middle school, an outsider with hair that “hangs down” and dances “like a clown.” The song works up to a lament, the chords going from that languid guitar rhythm to a more urgent, rockafied push. The vocal delivery is conversational, spoken rather than sung, as if the speaker is still that young kid who feels guilty, but in the rising course, the change over in the vocals is representative of his secret admiration for the kid they made so much fun of, the “punk rock star.”
Rouse’s songs have a literary quality in that he uses sound the way a short story might use imagery to both flesh out the story but also fill in the sensory depth. His sense of using pauses, the influx of a keyboard, of sound effect, to enhance the emotional sense of the story in the song has always struck me as brilliant. Rouse makes the kind of music that leads to repeated discoveries the more you listen.
It’s a sad song, in a way, and Rouse mines those seemingly auto-biographical memories to relay a narrative of loneliness and guilt, and that sad kind of wisdom that comes from growing up and recognizing our mistakes. It’s familiar territory for Rouse, and what’s best is the open-ended reality of his character’s angst and emotions: there’s never really a solution or a fix to the problem, save for the music, which in its own way, makes things better. And sometimes the only way to tell a sad story is through beautiful, exuberant music.